Being a Sunderland fan, especially over the last few years, means that you get used to a lot of players coming and going. Far too many, I think most would say. First of all, there are the universally disliked and not rated such as Greg Halford, Paul McShane, Daryl Murphy, and Anthony Stokes. Then there have been the 'Marmite' players that divide the support between those who rate and like them and those that don't. These are the kind of players we usually end up selling to Stoke City such as Danny Collins, Dean Whitehead, Danny Higginbotham, and Kenwyne Jones. But occasionally, just occasionally, a little gem enters our midst who has universal appeal and nothing but affection lavished upon him from the faithful. Yes, Steed Malbranque, I am looking at you. And I am going to look a lot deeper because, for me, the question of what our diminutive Frenchman actually brings to the table has never been less clear.
There is, of course, a reason that Malbranque is so popular amongst the fans and that reason is because he is a tremendously gifted footballer. I am no different from the majority in that I love watching Malbranque's exquisite first touch applied before shuffling forward, seemingly with the ball Velcroed to his boot, before administering a nutmeg or two on a hapless opponent. Someone recently told me regarding Malbranque "in 20 years time, those who watched Steed will tell the youngsters of the day that, whoever the current hero is, he isn't even in the same league", and I suspect it is true because he is a player who delights the crowd. An entertainer.
But whilst being an entertainer wins you friends, it does not necessarily win you points. What tangible reward do we get for a Steed nutmeg on the halfway line once the roar of appreciation from the stands has died down? None. After being something of a glamour signing under Roy Keane three years ago, his product has gradually declined year on year in almost every measurable sense. He has just one league goal to his name in Sunderland colours and his wastefulness in front of goal has reached such a level that it has surpassed the stage where it is an irritant and has now become a self-mocking running joke. His days as the creative pivot in the side are long gone too, with a dramatic and progressive decrease in the assists and defence-splitting passes that lit-up his debut season being registered in subsequent years.
There is also the further nuisance that is Malbranque's near total inability to see a game through into the final, often crucial, stages. It is no exaggeration to suggest that starting with Steed Malbranque effectively reduces the number of substitutions at the manager's disposal to two because he knows he will have to make plans to replace him in the second half. On more than one occasion during the recently finished campaign he was visibly struggling to cover ground mid-way through the second half. Twenty-four times Malbranque started a game for us last season and he finished only seven of them. In an era and division of tiny margins which can see substitutions reaping such rich dividends, it is surely unacceptable to put ourselves at a disadvantage by denying ourselves the fullest use of our options from the bench.
Contrary to what it may seem at this point, the intention here is not to simply amuse myself by sitting here and mercilessly slagging off a popular figure at the club. As mentioned before, I am a fan of Malbranque and enjoy elements of his game a great deal. My intention is to question just what practical use a physically struggling player with little tangible product is to us at this point. If we are going to transition ourselves from merely setting foot in the top ten to cementing our place within it, tough and unpopular questions such as this must be considered. Does Steed Malbranque's trickery enhance my match-day experience? Hell yes. Although watching a team who are chasing Europe and regularly dominating games would enhance it considerably more and teams such as those can not afford to carry the kind of unproductive luxury players that Malbranque has become.
I don't for one second expect it to be a popular opinion, but my conclusion is that we simply can not rely on Steed any longer to play a prominent role in our team. He is no longer a player that we can build a side around and look towards to provide that creative spark to win us games. In terms of being 'that guy' he is well and truly finished. Stephane Sessegnon is that man now. But I do still see a role to play for Malbranque from the substitutes bench. For me, he is an ideal man to send on from the bench with the remit of getting hold of the ball and winning a few free-kicks against tired and frustrated opposition when we are defending points towards the end of games. Given our penchant for throwing away points from winning positions, he could make a massive and tangible difference in such a role. In addition to that he is also a player who can come into the side if circumstances dictate, slot into a number of positions with little fuss, and keep things ticking over. Whether that will be enough for Steed, especially with his contract due to expire in twelve months is anyone's guess.
But ultimately, Steed Malbranque as any kind of genuine and regular influence of games at this level is gone. Steed the entertainer is all that is left, and, looking at it with a cold heart, it is no longer sufficient. He has earned his place in all of our affections and when we go our separate ways, whenever that will be, he will leave a warm legacy as a tremendous servant, superb entertainer, and as a player who quite literally ran until he dropped for Sunderland AFC on an almost weekly basis, but unfortunately it is time he was put out to pasture. He gives the team everything he has in the tank but the fact of the matter is that, in his current role at least, and although it pains me to say it, he is no longer capable of giving us quite enough.
Don't forget to sign up to The Roker Report Podcast on iTunes now! A new episode every Thursday, and continuing all throughout the summer... CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE!