As I watched transfer deadline day unfold in the summer of 2013 my muted optimism steadily turned to fear and bewilderment. News broke that fan favourite and all round wizard Stephane Sessegnon was to be sold to West Brom, replaced by a young Italian I had never really seen play.
Arriving on loan, Fabio Borini was trying to reignite a career recently impeded by injuries which had sidelined him for most of his maiden season at Liverpool. He had enjoyed successful spells at Swansea and Roma and at twenty-two years old, was still young. His talent, spotted by several top clubs in his brief career, was undeniable.
I doubt Borini had any idea what he was letting himself in for. Within three weeks of signing, Paolo Di Canio had been sacked after a woeful start to the season and rumours of a dressing room revolt. One can only imagine what Borini must have thought.
His derby day heroics earned him instant adoration and time from the fans. In a game of such significance, Borini had the confidence to strike the ball from distance to earn the first win of the season - against our local rivals no less. The joy and passion on his face amid a wild celebration revealed a man equally thrilled and relieved to have made a contribution and demonstrated a measure of his ability. It did not, however, earn him a guaranteed place in the team yet.
It was December onwards when we started to see the best of him. The league cup run was largely down to Borini’s clinical finishing against Chelsea and his confident, perfect penalty against Manchester United. In the final, he gave one of his best performances in a red and white shirt, out-jostling Vincent Kompany, before scoring a sweet low drive across the goalkeeper at a tight angle. Borini’s performance demonstrated his proficiency as a centre forward, a fact often forgotten amongst the emotion of the day.
In the final games of the season, Borini emerged as one of the chief miracle workers. His coolness under pressure to take vital penalties against Cardiff and Chelsea, his run and volley for the survival ensuring win against West Brom - all testament to the attitude, confidence and ability that any team in our position, or the league for that matter, could depend upon. One of his best attributes, despite his key goals, is his ability to take the ball forward with intent and inject some positivity that would, at the very least, offer encouragement to the crowd and team.
Borini’s status as a loanee, destined to return to Liverpool on a lucrative long term contract whatever happened to us, could have led to him taking a back seat and not risking or tarnishing himself in a fierce - and for a long time seemingly hopeless - relegation run-in. In the modern game, it is not unusual for players to decide they are not keen for the fight, even when their future is tied to that club. While he demonstrated that he possessed the qualities to secure our top flight status, Borini continued to perform though the threat of relegation no longer loomed. On the final day, at 2-0 down Borini pulled a goal back against Swansea and celebrated like a man to whom competing meant everything.
When Borini refused our advances for a permanent transfer in the Summer of 2014, many Sunderland fans took this as an insult. The outcry of anger and disappointment was a reflection of the affection and esteem Borini had enjoyed during his time on Wearside.
At first, I must admit, I was upset and angry. How could a player who appeared so invested in our club, so connected to the fans, turn us down for a club willing to sell and unlikely to use him? It seemed like another cruel lesson in the realities of modern day football. However, I came to understand and respect the decision when I reflected on the player I had watched thrive for Sunderland. The same attributes and attitude that had made him such a success with us, were driving his decision to stay at Liverpool. This was a young player with confidence, ambition, self belief - and now the opportunity - to play at a higher level. It seemed hypocritical to laud these attributes when benefiting my team at one moment, just to bemoan them the next.
Having watched his performances for Sunderland, it made perfect sense that Borini believed that he could force his way in to a Liverpool team that had come so close to the title the season before. Of course we can all sit and imagine what it must be like to make such decisions, but we can never really know. To be a 23 year old with the decision of whether to push for an opportunity at Champions League Liverpool, or to drop from this level and possibly never reach it again. How many of us could truly say this would be an easy decision?
Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing and we can see now that his decision did not go as I’m sure he planned. However, so often forgotten is the rather obvious fact that footballers are human. While it is safe to presume that many footballers are motivated by material considerations and not football, I draw the conclusions from what I have seen that money is unlikely to be his sole or primary motivation. It seems to me that footballing ambition and a belief that his abilities belonged at the top of the game, was a driving factor.
Why would any fan ridicule or dismiss such ambition? A player with the self belief to pursue his future at a club that had finished a close second in the Premier League and was playing Champions League football. This level of confidence and ambition is something we desperately need at the club. Should we only sign players happy to plateau? Who do not have the confidence or the inclination to improve and test themselves at the highest level?
When it was announced he was returning, the vast majority of Sunderland fans were supportive. There were a few dissenting voices who expressed their disdain at his perceived decision to sit in the Liverpool reserves on big money, rather than play every week in front of fans who adored him. However, if money had been Borini’s chief concern, could he not have gone to the Middle East, Russia or China? Borini would have no trouble securing lucrative contracts in these countries I’m sure. There is, I believe, significantly more to his relationship with the game than money.
Borini has not been prolific in his second spell with us, though it is no wonder when we look at the circumstances of his arrival and the role he has been given. Having barely played in 2014/15, Borini was always going to take time to improve his fitness. Though his fitness has returned, he has been playing wide left and been given significant defensive responsibilities. It cannot escape our notice, that a left sided forward under Allardyce may be given significantly less freedom than under Poyet.
Borini’s goalscoring stats are suffering because he is so reliable and hard working, as he is put in a position key to the teams defensive tactics. This is a problem not uncommon in our recent history. Defoe, Wickham and many others have been asked to undertake positions that do not come naturally to them or make the best use of their talents, so that the team may succeed. In my view this is akin to punishing the hardest workers, which is not how any profession should operate. However, this also leads to underwhelming goalscoring stats from these players, who are still rather unfairly judged as forwards.
I know people will say I’m naive. That Borini is just like the rest of them; greedy and self-serving. Not knowing him personally, I am of course speaking from my own humble observations of his performances on the pitch. One can point to Borini’s contribution which, in terms of goals and assists, has been negligible this season, while his exuberant celebrations after his goals at City and Chelsea, both of which were irrelevant to the result, could be taken to show a focus more on his own achievements than the collective.
Borini clearly loves scoring goals, but is this a passion we really wish to dissuade him of? Particularly given his work for the team in a general sense, do we begrudge him the excitement of scoring a goal and his nod to the fans with his celebration? Something more understated in the circumstances would perhaps appeal more to our stoic British sensitivities, but I do not believe this shows him to be anything more than passionate and exuberant.
It has not been the easiest start to Borini’s second spell. Unfair criticism without due consideration of the role he has been asked to perform, along with an initial struggle for fitness and some minor injuries, have curtailed momentum and impact. I believe that now we are at the business end of the season, we will be grateful to have his mental strength, quality, confidence and his clear unfailing commitment to the team. Such attributes cannot be underestimated, though they are frequently undervalued.