Every football supporter has that player they absolutely despise. For my brother it’s Toni Kroos, for reasons only known to him. “He does nothing”, he would lament. “Seriously, tell me what does he do”, he repeatedly said in a Dublin bar as Germany beat Italy in the Euro 2016 last 16. My brother doesn’t support rival sides that Kroos has played, nor does he really care that he’s German - his reasoning remain a mystery.
You will all have your own despised players. Mine is Tony Cottee. I hate Tony Cottee.
I hate everything about him. I hate his smarmy grin, I hate his functional yet slightly balding at the temples haircut, I hate his voice, I hate his on-the-nose analysis as a mid-card pundit on Sky Sports, I hate his stupid suits with a massive tie knot, I hate his perplexed look when he’s stood shivering on a gantry at Ipswich not knowing what to say.
I hate the fact that everyone knew he played football at some point but can’t actually remember when but above all else I hate him for knocking us out of the sodding League Cup in 1999.
As we welcome champions of England Leicester City (2016 has been one crazy ride) on Saturday for a relegation six-pointer, it only rekindles memories of when some bloke I thought had retired knocked us out of a competition I thought we would definitely win. This was a simple time, before selfies, Kardashians and rising fascism. A time when Sunderland were actually good (also, Tranmere Rovers were decent for some reason).
It was the glorious 1998/99 season and we were bloody brilliant. Marauding talents like nippy Michael Bridges, dominating Danny Dichio and the ultimate Rolls Royce of a player that was Paul Butler. We laid waste to Division One, swatting everyday jobbers like Oxford, Swindon and Sheffield United aside - so, a Worthington Cup semi-final double header against Premier League also-rans Leicester City seemed straightforward.
Yeh, they’d won it in 1997 but that was the Coca-Cola Cup, not the creamy smoothness of the Worthington Cup. Besides, we had Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, Alan Johnston and Micky Gray, Kevin Ball and Lee Clark in the centre - who did they have? Hilarious own goal merchant Frank Sinclair, club doorman Matt Elliott, alright, Emile Heskey and Muzzy Izzet were pretty good - we’d have to watch them.
So my 10-year-old self kicked back and dreamt of a possible Wembley trip to face Tottenham Hotspur. What I didn’t count on was some aging veteran deciding to roll back the years and destroy every shred of hope that I had.
Cottee’s first goal felt like an out of body experience. This isn’t happening. I stared in disbelief as Tommy Sorensen’s goal was breached and some old bloke ran around like a primary school child who’d necked an entire bag of Haribos. And why is hilarious own goal merchant Sinclair tearing Gray to shreds? No matter, we’ll get back into this. We’re Sunderland, we’re quality.
The complete arse went and scored again in the second half, the fox in the box (as the commentator kept saying in a voice of someone who’d only just discovered this pun) was ripping all my perceptions of Sunderland apart before my very eyes (yeah I know, I was young - give me a break). Big Gav McCann’s cross/free-kick ended up in the net and we went into the second leg just a goal down.
Quinny’s goal at Filbert Street put us on level terms and we looked confident. We were playing the stuff that had slayed Division one, the type of play that the likes of Bradford and QPR simply couldn’t handle and we were dishing it out to a Premier League side. Then, off an innocuous ball from some bloke called Savage, there he was again. Cottee. Bloody Tony Cottee. He clipped the ball past Sorensen and Leicester were back in front.
“How does he keep doing this?” I exclaimed, totally aghast. How on earth did this 94-year-old striker keep popping up between the solid partnership of Andy Melville and Paul Butler? This isn’t possible, it shouldn’t be possible.
“He’s done it all his career,” my Dad replied with an air of resignation (he said the same when Mark Hughes volleyed in what seemed like 10 goals in a single game against us). Anyway, Leicester got to the final and lost to Spurs in the last minute thanks to some bloke who’s now a PE teacher in Denmark.
My hatred of Cottee blinded the fact he was a sensational forward and the archetypal poacher. The hate was surpassed by a begrudging respect for someone committed to staying at the top of his game even into his late-30s, that is something you have to admire.
No actually, forget that. I hate you, Tony Cottee. Oh, and Kasey Keller can do one as well for that ridiculous save to deny Quinny.