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Cult Heroes: Sean Thornton

McCarthy's patience was pushed to the limit by his frustrating prodigy Sean Thornton during his spell at Sunderland
McCarthy's patience was pushed to the limit by his frustrating prodigy Sean Thornton during his spell at Sunderland

For this weeks Cult Heroes article I take a look at a player that never quite lived up to the hype, but what flashes of brilliance her did show helped to brighten a dark period in recent SAFC history.

It would be fair to say that the new millennium was far from a golden era for Sunderland fans, times were tough, the football was rubbish, Peter Reid's tenure at the club was stuttering to a disappointing climax and the footballing dream team of Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill were appointed as Reidy's replacement.

However before Reid packed his bags he was to leave Sunderland with a leaving present in the shape of Sean Thornton. I remember being relatively excited about the signing of Sean, or was it Paul, BBC Sport certainly didn't seem to be able to make their mind up.

Thornton's signing was far from straight forward. Signed as a highly rated 19 year old who was out of contract at his previous club Tranmere Rovers. Given Sean's age Sunderland would have to work out the usual compensation package with Tranmere and both clubs would be happy...

What should have been a relatively simple affair soon got rather heated between the two clubs as Tranmere claimed Thornton had been training with the Black Cats whilst he was still on their books. Rovers were further enraged with the FA fined Sunderland, what they deemed to be, the paltry sum of £1,500.

I am looking forward to joining Sunderland and having the opportunity to play in the Premiership

Thornton was made to wait for his Sunderland debut, over six months and a loan spell at Blackpool, before lining up in the red and white in an FA Cup Third Round victory over Bolton Wanderers where he caught the eye of both the fans and the hapless manager.

That was the first full game I've seen Sean in and I must say it was a very promising and mature performance. He's certainly a player we want to keep an eye on and bring on but it's now up to him to show he can produce that standard consistently.

Thornton was to go on to make fourteen appearances that season, where he was to entertain and frustrate in equal measures. Sean clearly had a talent, especially from set pieces, but it was often his fitness levels that let him down. It was reported that Thornton allegedly enjoyed the footballers lifestyle but not necessarily the early mornings at the training ground. Think of him as an early precursor to Andy Reid.

Thornton's most memorable moment came in Sunderland's ninth straight defeat and under the tutelage of new manager Mick McCarthy in a home defeat to Champions League chasing Chelsea. The lads showed signs of improvement under McCarthy with an impressive first half performance that was capped off by a fantastic right footed half volley from the bleached blonde midfielder. It was a poor headed clearance on the edge of the area by Frank Lampard that allowed a composed Thornton chest down the ball before hammering it past a helpless Carlos Cudicini.

Following relegation from the Premiership with another dismal points haul Thornton was to make fourteen appearances before he was sidelined with an ankle ligament injury. Upon his return he was part of the Sunderland side that was to advance to the FA Cup Semi Final at Old Trafford where Sunderland's cup run was undone by Millwall thanks to Tim Cahill who must have made a fortune in goal bonuses at our expense over the years.

After play-off heart break Sunderland were to come back determined to right that wrong and under Mick McCarthy charged to promotion. First team opportunities were becoming limited for Thornton and it was apparent that his much documented and discussed alleged issues off the field were becoming more and more of an issue for the Sunderland management team and Thornton found himself transfer listed before moving to Doncaster Rovers.

Ultimately Thornton can be added to the list of players that maybe believed their own hype too much. There is no doubting his talent, indeed Zola was to praise the young midfielder following his wonder goal, but it was down to Sean to put in the work on the training field to prove his worth to the side rather than simply relying on his ability. However Thornton was not to leave without giving Sunderland fans a glimpse of his other talents in this promotion "rap"

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