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The Top Ten: Sunderland Flashes In The Pan

Michael Graham tackles the Top Ten after relentlessly mocking everyone else's attempts.
Michael Graham tackles the Top Ten after relentlessly mocking everyone else's attempts.

I never learn, do I? I disagree with Chris Weatherspoon in Talking Tactics and they make me do them. Now, after turning mocking David Boyle for his Top Tens (for weeks - SW) into something resembling a sport in its own right, here I am being pushed into the firing line again. Stupid, stupid, stupid. *bangs head against wall, Dobbie style*

With one new old Irish scamp and one new young Irish scamp lighting up the Stadium of Light this weekend, there was only one topic I had in mind for my first attempt at a Top Ten - Flashes in the Pan. Those players, or managers, who have started well, promised so much, yet failed to recapture the early magic again despite opportunity, and then faded away into obscurity. Oh Sunderland AFC... what skeptics you make of us!

Lets get cracking with the Top Ten Sunderland flashes in the pan that I can remember during my time following this club.

10. Kevin Kilbane

While we are all buzzing over the impact of a big bustling left winger who whipped a tremendous ball into the box with his first contribution as a Sunderland player, we can not possibly fail to mention another.

Before James McClean there was Kevin Kilbane. Having joined from West Bromwich Albion for a then heftyish fee of £2.5m, he was unleashed as a substitute at the Stadium of Light against Southampton in 1999. In true James McClean style, he produced some powerful wing play down the left before sending over a peach of a cross that Kevin Phillips headed in for the match winning goal. We thought we had a gem.

That proved to be about as good as it got for Kilbane in red and white, though, as both he and the team struggled for form and was targeted by the boo-boys.

9. Ricky Sbragia

Oh Ricky. How I came to loathe your football. Sitting at the Stadium of Light on Sunday watching Blackburn's needlessly defensive and cowardly performance, I couldn't help but think of our own Steve Kean, Ricky Sbragia.

It started out so well, though. The terror of Roy Keane's out-of-control beard and the pressure it brought had lifted when Sbragia led the team to two big victories whilst still in caretaker charge. He was so good he even managed to coax a goal out of Steed Malbranque. No, seriously. But a post Christmas slump that Steve Bruce would have been proud of was to follow and the shy Sbragia retreated further and further into his shell. Matches became defensive coaching exercises, with players more preoccupied with keeping a rigid defensive shape than doing any attacking of their own, and results were grim. The season finished on a high, but in reality it had little to do with Sbragia and he walked away into the sunset.

8. Stephen Elliott

Young 'Sleeves' caused a bit of a stir when he was plucked from Manchester City's academy as part of Mick McCarthy's rebuilding. Almost instantly comparisons were being made with Kevin Phillips as he forged an exciting partnership with Marcus Stewart and finished his first season with 15 goals and a Championship winners medal to his name.

Injuries then began to take their toll and he was in and out of the team, never able to establish a sustained run in the team and he never reached those early eights again. Mick McCarthy took him to Wolves but his career has since fizzled out and he is currently languishing where all once-promising Irish careers go to die - the SPL.

7. Sean Thornton

And speaking of once-promising Irish careers that died a needless death, right on queue enters Sean Thornton into our little list.

Of all the players who have played for Sunderland in the modern era, none have had bigger gulf between ego and ability than Thornton, and considering that list now includes Nicklas Bendtner it is an incredible feat.

Sunderland signed Thornton from Tranmere and took a fine for an illegal approach on the chin to do it. He made his debut under Howard Wilkinson and stood out as a real cause for optimism in difficult times. He proved he had an eye for the spectacular and a set-piece delivery of real quality. He liked a drink far too much to ever come close to fulfilling that promise and Mick McCarthy, one of his biggest supporters, lost patience and banished him to Doncaster Rovers. His seemingly endless fall from grace continued this summer, as he signed for Aberystwyth Town of the Welsh Premier league.

6. Michael Chopra

It is easy to forget considering what happened since, but Chopra once lit up the Stadium of Light in a way that so few have managed to achieve. The former Newcastle player was a controversial signing by Roy Keane, but came off the bench to score a dramatic late winner against Tottenham on the opening day of the season. He went on to enjoy a decent season, bagging a few crucial goals along the way and playing a key part in securing Premier League survival.

A plethora of personal problems were to follow including dealing with a gambling addiction. 'That miss' at St James' Park ended his Sunderland career, but it was fading into obscurity for a long time before it and Chopra has still never made it back into the Premier League.

5. Malcolm Crosby

When Crosby almost apologetically took over the managerial reigns from Denis Smith in December 1991 on a caretaker basis, no one expected it to be a long standing arrangement. Bob Murray had sounded out Neil Warnock to take over and the then Notts County manager had agreed. As soon as Crosby's team were knocked out of the FA Cup, the change would be made. What no one had foreseen however was that Crosby would take the club all the way to the final and make himself effectively unsackable.

Despite losing the final to Liverpool, Crosby was given the job and promptly wasted the cup prize money on Shaun Cunnington. Enough said.

4. Ben Alnwick

With Mick McCarthy's promotion push threatening to be derailed by a goalkeeping injury/Michael Ingham crisis, Ben Alnwick got a surprise chance to impress and he was determined to not let it pass him by. He made his debut at the Stadium of Light in which Sunderland won to clinch promotion and was especially impressive in front of the TV cameras at Upton Park when the title was clinched.

That was just about as good as it got for Alnwick though. He played a few games in the atrocious 15 point season but was tipped to become the club's new Jimmy Montgomery by Niall Quinn the following summer. The promise of first team football saw him rescind a transfer request and he started Roy Keane's reign between the sticks. His form took a dramatic nose-dive, culminating in a spectacularly poor performance at Deepdale. A stint in the reserves and one 'Stevie-gate' video scandal later and he was sold to Spurs where he remains today despite 7 loan-spells at different clubs in the football league.

3. Martin Smith

'Son of Pele', the great white Mackem hope. Ever since Martin Smith burst into the first team and curled a brilliant free kick into the bottom corner of the net he was heralded for big things. Back in those days, Sunderland free kicks only ever went into two places - the wall or the stand.

Smith was a player of real elegance. A naturally left footed winger who could create and score and was a rare bright light during some very dark days for Sunderland. When Peter Reid arrived with his 'seven cup finals to save Sunderland', it was Smith who answered the call, going on a goalscoring run and netting what would be a priceless winner at Roker Park against fellow-strugglers Swindon. It could be argued, in fact, that the status the club enjoys today dates directly back to that goal.

Injuries started to hamper him, and rumours began to circulate about a lack of professionalism in his private life, but his manager gave him every opportunity to shine. Peter Reid even hailed Smith as 'the most naturally talented player in the squad' mere months before he left to join Sheffield United, and bare in mind that was a squad that contained Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark. Ultimately, it seemed Smith never quite wanted it enough and went on to have a good career in the lower leagues, but he should have been so much more.

2. Stan Varga

The Slovakian's first Sunderland debut is still stuff of legend. Did it really happen? Looking back at the rest of his Sunderland career it made you wonder.

That day we genuinely wondered where the hell we had found this world class centre back. He was a giant yet stroked the ball around the pitch like Glenn Hoddle. It would have been unfair to expect that every week, but in true Sunderland fashion it didn't take him long to jump directly from the the sublime to the ridiculous as he struggled to even resemble a footballer for the remainder of his days at Sunderland (in both spells). He went on to win plenty of honours under Martin O'Neill in Scotland, but never again came even close to shining as brightly as he did on his debut.

1. Allan Johnston

Some may consider this an odd choice for number one. It may have been a relatively long flash, but if we are talking about players who delighted the crowd, produced quality, and then inexplicably faded away into obscurity, then Allan Johnston has to be at the top of that list.

Johnston started off well, etching his name into the record books by scoring the last ever league goal at Roker Park, but it wasn't until the infamous Elm Park humiliation the following year that he got his chance to really shine. Following that 4-0 defeat, Peter Reid lost faith with his previously trusted senior players, and Johnston was one of the beneficiaries. He went on to form a left-wing partnership with Michael Gray that is still talked about today, forging a reputation for himself as a tricky and skillful player of genuine finesse and product.

As his stock grew north of the border following some dynamic international performances for Scotland, his boyhood club Rangers persuaded him to join them on a Bosman free transfer. There was just one problem - his Sunderland contract still had one year left to run and Peter Reid furiously banished him to serve it in the reserves. Allan Johnston did indeed get the move he wanted, but the 'Magic' was gone and his career nose-dived.

Johnston may have been very good here. He could and should have been MUCH better.


Agree, disagree? Feel free to comment and tell me how wrong I am or vote in the poll . Who is your top Sunderland flash in the pan?

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