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1 to 11: Sunderland’s best XI of the 21st century

It’s Sunday. There’s no match to dwell on, no ownership or management update to talk about and we’re bored. So, with that in mind, we got to thinking - what is the best XI of Sunderland players from the 21st century?

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Manager: Peter Reid

Formation: 3-4-3

Selection Criteria: Minimum of 20 league appearances since the year 2000

GK: Jordan Pickford

We may not have seen too much of him in a Sunderland shirt but it would be fair to say that Jordan Pickford is a safe pair of hands destined for a bright future. He joined Sunderland’s academy at the age of eight and, after several successful loan spells at lower league clubs such as Bradford City and Preston North End, he made his Premier League debut against Tottenham Hotspur on 16 January 2016. It was a proud moment for the lifelong Sunderland fan and, despite conceding four goals, Pickford impressed with a series of smart saves and some excellent distribution. It was a sign of things to come.

Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Pickford began the 2016/17 season as understudy to Vito Mannone. However, after Mannone suffered a serious arm injury in training, Pickford firmly established himself as the club’s number one and his consistent displays attracted the attention of some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. His performance in the 2-0 away defeat to Arsenal was phenomenal – he saved 11 out of the 36 shots on goal – and, despite missing out on the Premier League Young Player of the Year award to Dele Alli, Pickford did scoop the club award to cap off a successful individual campaign.

Confident on crosses, an excellent shot-stopper and distribution that an outfield player would be proud of, Pickford has it all. He left the Black Cats for Everton in June 2017 for an initial fee of £25 million. He becomes the third most expensive goalkeeper in history and the most expensive British goalkeeper of all time. He is excellent now, but his future potential is huge. It is for these reasons that he gets the number one jersey ahead of the likes of Thomas Sorensen, Craig Gordon and Simon Mignolet.

RB: Phil Bardsley

A solid yet unspectacular full-back who was signed by Roy Keane in January 2008 for an initial fee of £850,000. One of many Sunderland players in the Premier League era to have learnt his trade in Manchester United’s academy, Bardsley was well known for his tough-tackling, no-nonsense approach.

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

He was named the club’s Player of the Year in 2010/11 but Bardsley made a disastrous start to the following campaign. He was sent off in the 1-0 home defeat to Newcastle Utd for a horrific challenge on Fabricio Collocini before receiving a retrospective four-match ban by the FA for an altercation he had with Juan Mata during Sunderland’s 2–1 defeat to Chelsea in September 2011.

His six-year spell at the club came to an end in 2014 when Bardsley decided to join Mark Hughes’ Stoke City. He made 174 appearances for the Black Cats, scoring seven times in the famous red and white stripes. It’s fair to say that Sunderland have not been blessed with an abundance of good right-backs since the turn of the century and Bardsley himself was nothing special. However, he was the best of a bad bunch so, on that basis, he merits his place in this side.

CB: Jonny Evans

Former Manchester Utd captain Roy Keane used his connections at Old Trafford to sign young Irishman Jonny Evans on a short-term loan deal in December 2006. Comfortable on the ball, calm under pressure and positionally astute, Evans firmly established himself as a first team regular and he played a pivotal role in the 17-match unbeaten run which helped the Black Cats secure the 2006/07 Championship title. He won the club’s Young Player of the Year award that year, but left the club soon after to push for a place in the Manchester United first team.

Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

After growing increasingly frustrated by his lack of first team opportunities at United, Evans returned to Sunderland on loan in January 2008 and was immediately drafted into the first team squad. He played 15 Premier League matches under Keane, helping the club to successfully avoid relegation before returning to Old Trafford in May 2008.

LB: Julio Arca

The little magician joined the Black Cats in the year 2000 from Argentinos Juniors in a deal worth £3.5 million. He signed a five-year deal and made an instant impact, scoring on his Stadium of Light debut against West Ham Utd. Arca quickly established himself as a fan’s favourite, scoring three times in his debut season on Wearside to help the club finish seventh in the 2000/01 Premier League season.

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Julio’s next two campaigns were blighted by injuries and loss of form, but the versatile Argentinian returned to his brilliant best under Mick McCarthy in 2003/04 as Sunderland narrowly missed out on promotion, losing on penalties to Crystal Palace in the Championship play-off semi-finals. He played an integral part in the club’s promotion a year later as the Black Cats put their play-off heartache behind them to scoop the 2004/05 Championship title.

Arca began the following season in fine form, scoring a superb free-kick in the 2-0 Tees-Wear derby success over Middlesbrough - a victory that helped end Sunderland’s 27-match winless run in the Premier League - but that proved to be his only goal in a disappointing campaign that saw the Black Cats relegated with an abysmal total of 15 points (a Premier League record low at the time).

The skilful South American full-back left Sunderland and signed for North East rivals Middlesbrough in July 2006, but his time on Wearside is fondly remembered by the Black Cats faithful. He made 157 league appearances for Sunderland: scoring 17 goals; experiencing two relegations and one promotion.

His consistent performances at left full-back led him to be named in the 2003/04 Championship PFA Team of the Year, a feat which he repeated a year later when he was named in the same team as a left midfield player. This phenomenal personal achievement underlined his class and versatility and, as such, he was sorely missed when he left the Stadium of Light following Sunderland’s calamitous relegation in 2005/06.

RW: Steed Malbranque

A skilful player capable of playing on either flank, Steed Malbranque followed teammates Teemu Tainio and Pascal Chimbonda to Wearside in July 2008. The former Spurs and Fulham winger had an extremely low centre of gravity and a sharp football mind, which helped the elusive Frenchman to create goalscoring chances out of nothing.

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

He only converted one himself (in the Premier League) – a spectacular 25-yard strike in Sunderland’s 4-1 victory over Hull at the KC Stadium – but his numerous assists meant that he was a regular starter during his three-year stay on Wearside. His lack of fitness meant that he was often unable to see out the 90 minutes, so he was regularly substituted during his time at the club. Malbranque left Sunderland to join French side Saint-Etienne in August 2011 after making 102 league appearances for the Black Cats.

CM: Don Hutchison

Gateshead-born midfielder Don Hutchison was signed by Sunderland boss Peter Reid in the year 2000 after failing to agree a new contract with Everton. He played a pivotal role in the Wearsiders’ 2000/01 Premier League campaign, helping the Black Cats to record back-to-back seventh-placed finishes.

He is best remembered for scoring the equaliser in Sunderland’s 2-1 win over North East rivals Newcastle Utd in November 2000; a dramatic contest which saw Sunderland goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen save a late Alan Shearer penalty to preserve the Black Cats’ slender advantage.

In total, Hutchison scored eight goals in his 40 appearances for the club, and his impressive form caught the eye of West Ham boss Glenn Roeder, who agreed to pay a club record transfer fee of £5 million to prize the Scottish international away from Sunderland. His goals and assists were sorely missed as Peter Reid’s side struggled the following season before succumbing to relegation in 2003.

CM: Claudio Reyna

A tremendous central midfield player who signed from Glasgow Rangers for a fee of £2.85 million. He made 28 league appearances for Sunderland between December 2001 and August 2003, scoring three times in his short stay on Wearside. This classy USA international had it all and was named in the 2002 World Cup Team of the Tournament following his impressive displays in Korea/Japan.

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty IMages

He could read the game superbly, distribute the ball eloquently and turn defence into attack in an instance, Reyna was that good and it’s a crying shame that an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his knee hampered his time on Wearside. He left Sunderland for Manchester City in the summer of 2003.

LF: Jermain Defoe

A class act on and off the pitch, Jermain Defoe is the perfect role model. Signed in January 2015 as part of the swap deal that saw Jozy Altidore leave for Toronto FC, Defoe has been a revelation since returning to the Premier League from Canada. In his two-and-a-half years at Sunderland he has scored 34 goals in 87 league appearances, a phenomenal statistic given the fact that he has been playing in a side hopelessly short on creativity and confidence.

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

In that time, the 34-year-old has earned himself an England recall and has won two successive Player of the Year awards. He, rather bizarrely, played wide left under manager Dick Advocaat and it is in this position that he scored his most memorable goal for the club; a thumping 22-yard left foot volley in the 1-0 derby win over Newcastle Utd.

The emotion of scoring that goal caused him to cry, but it is his special relationship with young cancer sufferer Bradley Lowery that has really touched the hearts of the nation. It’s a relationship that has also had a profound effect on Defoe, with the striker admitting that his young superfan is never far from his mind.

Speaking after England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania - a match in which Defoe was on the scoresheet and Lowery was mascot – Defoe said:

To be honest, every time I play I always think about him……

I love scoring goals and I want to play well for my country and for my family, but every time I go out on the pitch it's always at the back of my mind. I want to do well, I want to score a goal for little Bradley.

Defoe’s best position is undoubtedly as a central striker, but he is in my side as a left winger so that I can accommodate three other clinical finishers.

FW: Darren Bent

A slightly controversial choice given his acrimonious departure from the club. Nevertheless, Bent’s goalscoring prowess cannot be ignored given that he scored an incredible 32 goals in 58 league appearances for Sunderland between August 2009 and January 2011. A £10 million club record signing from Tottenham Hotspur, Bent got off to the perfect start, scoring the winner against Bolton on his debut.

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Goals against Chelsea and Hull City followed, but it is his strike against Liverpool – the infamous beach ball goal - in October 2009 that he is, perhaps, best remembered for. Bent’s first-time shot hit a beach ball thrown onto the field by a Liverpool fan and trickled past confused goalkeeper Pepe Reina and into the net. It proved to be the only goal of the game as Steve Bruce’s side beat Liverpool 1-0 at the Stadium of Light.

Bent scored his first hat-trick for the club in the 4-0 victory over Bolton in March 2010 and he ended the season with 24 league goals; a tally which amounted to 50% of his side’s total goals. His fantastic debut season on Wearside saw Bent scoop the Player of the Year award.

The goals continued to flow the following season, but Bent had his head turned in January 2011 when Aston Villa came looking to acquire his services. The striker submitted a written transfer request in order to force through a move to the Midlands, but Sunderland stood firm until an £18 million offer, potentially rising to £24 million, was agreed between the two clubs. Sunderland’s talisman was gone, the temptation of higher wages was too much for Bent to turn down. It was a colossal sideways move that he surely regrets, a move that tarnished his reputation at Sunderland and ruined his promising club career.

FW: Niall Quinn

Now here’s a man who needs no introduction. Striker, goalkeeper, captain, manager, chairman, ambassador - this man has done it all during his time at Sunderland AFC. He is a man that leads by example on and off the pitch, one half of a little and large partnership that has terrified defences up and down the country. Quite simply, this man is a legend.

Quinn scored 61 goals in 203 appearances between August 1996 and October 2002, including the winner in Sunderland’s 2-1 win over North East rivals Newcastle Utd in November 2000. He retired two years later but returned to the club in 2006, heading the Drumaville Consortium that bought a controlling stake in Sunderland.

He managed the side for a few games soon after, but stepped aside to become club chairman when Irishman Roy Keane became available. It was a partnership that flourished as the Black Cats bounced back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

It’s fair to say that Quinn was a man of the people, as he ably demonstrated in 2007 following Sunderland’s 1-0 away win at Cardiff City. When a group of 80 supporters were ejected from an Easyjet flight – at Bristol airport - by an over-zealous pilot, Quinn not only leapt to their defence, but he also paid £8,000 out of his own pocket to bring them back to Wearside in a fleet of 18 taxis.

Quinn remained club chairman until October 2011 when he was replaced by Ellis Short, the Texan billionaire and current Sunderland owner. He took up an ambassadorial role for a few months before leaving the club completely in February 2012. After six years as a player and a further six involved with the running of the club, Quinn’s time at Sunderland was over. The club has been worse off for it ever since.

FW: Kevin Phillips

I simply can’t speak highly enough of this man, but I’ll give it a good go. “Super Kev” was the player I looked up to most when I was younger, a lethal finisher who was not just a scorer of great goals, but also a great goalscorer. He scored headers, close-range tap-ins, long-range screamers, incredible volleys, penalties; you name it, Phillips has scored almost every type of goal that you can possibly imagine.

Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Signed from Watford for £325,000 in July 1997, Phillips was the bargain of the century. He scored 113 goals in 208 matches, shattering numerous records in his six years on Wearside. He won the Premier League Golden Boot in the year 2000 and the European Golden Shoe award in the same year – he remains the only Englishman to win the latter – after scoring 30 goals in the 1999/00 Premier League campaign.

He broke the club’s post-war goalscoring record a year later to cement his name in Sunderland’s history. He left the club to join Southampton in August 2003 following the Black Cats’ relegation to the Championship. He was sorely missed. Perhaps he’ll return one day to manage the club in the not too distant future?

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