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Black Cats Analects: The Jack Colback thing...

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The 153rd Tyne-Wear derby looms and there's one player at the heart of it all. Here's why.

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09 June 2014.  "… We gave him the opportunity to become a professional footballer … the club agreed to all of the terms demanded … we were always led to believe that Jack wanted to stay … at his and his representatives’ request, final talks were put on hold … we were never given the chance to negotiate with him … no chance for Sunderland to recover any of the significant investment that it has made in him …"

That one club statement ended Sunderland and Jack Colback.  Their affiliation dated back to 1999; Colback had the prepubescent potential, Sunderland had the academy.  For fifteen years the club nurtured his ability, brokered his developmental loans and paid him silly money for the privilege.  In return, the burgeoning talent demonstrated strong worth ethic, humility and a desire to improve.  So it was unthinkable that this youth investment could segregate himself from his club to join its nemesis; even should Newcastle United be his ‘boyhood club’.

But he did.

To his 130th and final match for Sunderland, Jack Raymond Colback was a revered midfield engine and competent utility player.  His coaches commended his espousing view of the club and his assuring on-field diligence.  Even brutal detractors rarely denied him his due as Sunderland’s industrious team player.

Overlooking his 12-minute, double-booking gaff dump debut, the midfielder was an adept passer; completing 88% of his 2753 short passes in five years.  He was solid defensively in 2012/13; clamping 116 tackles, intercepting 69 pass, and blocking 22 shots.  His tackling success hit 75% by the end of his Black Cats tenure.  He may have been far from a finished product (a 63% success rate for long passes and 17% for cross passes was uninspiring) but, at 24 years old he understood the basics of his midfield role and performed them clinically.

However Jack Colback won’t be remembered for supplementary statistics.  Supporters recall players by emotional memories: a decisive goal or extravagant incident.  Colback had few of any.  His controversial decision in switching Wearside for Tyneside, therefore, is his most memorable action.  It is that choice, and the tainted bile it created, that threatens to tarnish the subtle credibility Colback forged at Sunderland in the minds of his former supporters.

It belongs with the diluted morality of monopolised football: Sunderland publicly claimed that Jack Colback committed unprincipled actions to ensure the club received no amicable compensation from their investment in him; all to the benefit of a local rival that contributed nothing to his development and paid nothing for his services.  From that perspective, the club and its supporters have every right to be outraged at a player who admitted joining Newcastle was "… an opportunity I couldn’t let slip, or risk it never happening."

Contrarily, Colback can justify that he was safeguarding his career.  He wasn’t obligated to re-sign with Sunderland and he fulfilled the terms of a contract he already extended in January 2012.  He reportedly sought a move away then, too.

Both arguments will have contradictory interpretations of the truth.  What is known is that Colback reportedly declined two contract renewals – in August 2013 and May 2014.  Within that time, mitigated circumstances prolonged any negotiations.  Colback spoke of it only once in November, to explain how he and the club mutually prioritised their uncertain league future over contract talks.  However, Paolo Di Canio had previously insinuated his "pit bull" wanted to leave the club during pre-season.  Gus Poyet was more divulging; by publicly revealing in February that Colback requested discussions be put on hiatus, and later conceding in April that he didn’t envision the player wanting to remain at the Stadium of Light.

So it was evidential that Colback became disillusioned with Sunderland.  Supporters knew he had an existing affinity with Newcastle United and the Killingworth native made no secret of it.  It was to his credit that he showed no reluctance in condemning Newcastle in back-to-back 0-3 victories.  Yet it’s frustrating that for all Colback’s honest commitment with the Black Cats – notably even against Newcastle - it is the Mags who now benefit from his sharpened form this season.

In his first 15 league matches in 2014/15, Colback has created 21 potential assists; meaning in his entire senior career, 27% of his potential assists have occurred in the last 17 weeks against 5 years at Sunderland.  His 18 shots for the barcodes are more than in any season prior too.  They’re busy stats for a defensive midfielder on 2 assists and the highest pass rate on the Tyne.  It’s also unsurprising.  Colback’s ‘boyhood club’ story already set expectations that he would play that extra 10 in 110% for the Magpies.

Regardless, once the initial acidity subsides, Sunderland need only analyse how a fifteen year investment was lost.  For Colback; he was, for the Black Cats, as committed to his contractual obligations as he was assumed deceitful when they ended.  He supported the full-back conversion that frustrated his midfield ambitions while pledging to secure Sunderland’s top-flight future.  On and off the pitch, he worked the fundamental obligations of public professionalism.

His open gratitude to Sunderland and its supporters was to subdue any antagonism.  But that’s a common script in football.  If the £5m fiasco between Newcastle and West Ham United is true, opinions on Colback could today have been much different.  By that account, the midfielder was allegedly reluctant to join the Magpies because of Sunderland supporters.  This is supported by Colback’s own choice of words; not naïve to assume his decision would be understood, he accepted the truth; "… the majority of Sunderland fans will hate me for the rest of my life …"

And, for at least twice this season, he’ll find out how true that is.