Brought to the club by Peter Reid in 2002, Sean Thornton had caused problems behind the scenes before he had even stepped onto the pitch at the Stadium of Light.
His contract ran down at Tranmere Rovers. The Wirral based club were due £225,000 - a fee set by tribunal - as part of Thornton's move to the North East. However, amid allegations by them that we had breached FA and Football League regulations, Sunderland were later fined £1,500 for making an alleged ‘illegal approach’.
Within months of his arrival, Peter Reid was sacked following continued poor league form, where he was duly replaced by the managerial duo of Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill.
Despite these appointments bringing about one of our darkest periods in recent times, it was actually beneficial for the young Irishman. With Thornton undoubtedly talented, Wilkinson gave him the chance to impress in the centre of midfield.
His debut in the FA Cup Replay at home to Bolton yielded an industrious showing that impressed the freezing-cold January crowd. Sunderland ran out 2-0 winners, after extra time. His Manager was also very complimentary of the performance, giving Thornton hope that his chance in the first team would not be just a rare occurrence.
Thornton was indeed given a chance to continue his progress, featuring twice for Wilkinson before he was inevitably sacked. The appointment of Mick McCarthy was to propel him into the limelight, though, as the youngster became one of the only bright sparks of a dark, depressing season end. A fantastic volley to open the scoring against Chelsea was the catalyst to a man of the match performance - a showing so impressive that it is alleged that Gianfranco Zola came into the Sunderland dressing room afterwards to exchange shirts.
As we all know though, a streak of eleven defeats condemned McCarthy’s men to a record low points tally of 19 and an embarrassing relegation. As the big names of Phillips, Craddock, McCann, Reyna and Sorensen left for pastures new, the likes of Sean Thornton were seen as the ones most likely to spearhead a promotion push and rebuild the club. Despite losing the opening two fixtures, the central midfielder put in a match winning shift at Preston North End to halt an all-time record eighteen league defeats on the bounce. His opener after only four minutes set the tone for what would become an impressive, if ultimately disappointing season for the club.
He would go on that season to make thirty appearances, scoring four times. Statistically McCarthy’s team would win 75% of the games Thornton would start, but murmurs of a disruptive personality had conspiracy theorists wondering if we were ultimately better without him in the dressing room.
A penalty shoot-out defeat to Crystal Palace in the Play-Offs meant we would again be relying on the likes of the Irish Under-21 international to propel us to the league’s summit. However, the purchase of skipper-to-be Dean Whitehead from Oxford United and Mansfield’s Liam Lawrence meant he would make significantly less appearances than many would have expected, as weight issues and nights on the town became more than just rumours.
Eventually Thornton and his peroxide blonde hair would be seen less and less in a Mick McCarthy starting eleven and with promotion sealed a day before at home to Stoke City the Manager confirmed, to the surprise of the fan base, that he would be letting go of Marcus Stewart, Jeff Whitley, Michael Bridges and indeed Thornton himself.
Whilst some fans attested to the quality of his delivery, others spoke of his problems off the pitch and need for togetherness as we approached our difficult task of remaining in the Premiership.
Rather surprisingly at the time he made the step down two divisions below, becoming Doncaster Rovers record signing in a £175,000 move to Yorkshire. His career there however was stunted by a succession of bad injuries, eventually seeing out his two year contract and being released by new Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll.
Rumours of outside influences once again surrounded his departure - with his former team now managed and once again promoted under new Messiah Roy Keane, Thornton was a forgotten man that had been left a little behind by football. That didn’t curtail his move to London club Leyton Orient, though, where he did resurrect his career ever so slightly - at least to the point where local "punk legend" Steve Wright wrote a song about him which you can view below, if you dare.
As the lyrics go, "I wanna go down the pub with Sean Thornton" - it became apparent that his love for the pub became too much, and as such his form and career nosedived considerably.
Further moves to obscure teams such as Aberystwyth Town, Conwy Borough and Bala Town really cemented (with respect to the named teams) the sad tale of his decline.
Sean Thornton was a player who, despite being incredibly talented, didn’t so much as not reach his full potential, but evidently wasted all of it.
Still not yet retired, the 33-year-old is playing for his hometown team of Drogheda United, where he is still slamming in those 25-yarders every now and again.