Phil West says... Paul Butler!
Picking a ‘most underrated’ Sunderland player, after seeing so many candidates come and go over the years, is an interesting task. It’s easy to make a strong case for the likes of Danny Dichio, Steven Caldwell, David Connolly or the late Marton Fulop, all of whom often went under the radar at the SOL but contributed in their own way.
After some thought, I’ve decided to go for a man who was just as much of a rock at the back as Kevin Ball was in midfield, during the late 1990s, Paul Butler. I remember when we signed him back in 1998, for the princely sum of £1 million, Peter Reid explaining that we needed to tighten things up at the back if we wanted to go one better than we had in 1997/1998. He wanted to eliminate our habit of, as he put it, ‘making lapses at the back’. Bury to Sunderland was something of a step up, but clearly Reid had seen something that he liked.
Boy, did it work. Butler would do the basics of defending with the kind of dead-eyed relish that you (sadly) seldom see nowadays. Tackling hard, snuffing out danger, and generally being the kind of brick wall-type of player that all good promotion teams need. Whilst his full backs in Gray and Makin were always eager to push on and create overlaps, Butler was the man content to go about his job in understated, disciplined fashion. He also popped up with some crucial goals here and there, including a sweet-as-you-like diving header against Port Vale.
So potent was our Kevin Phillips-inspired attack during the Reid years, that our defence seldom found itself showered with praise, at least to as significant a degree. We had many defenders of significant pedigree during this time, including Steve Bould and Stan Varga, but Butler was always the one of the first players whom I would trust to keep the opposition out, often in blood and thunder fashion. He was undoubtedly one of the foundation stones upon which our flirtations with European football at the beginning of the 2000s were built.
Alex McCain says... Phil Bardsley!
A full-back mainstay in the Sunderland side for six years and seven seasons, Bardsley was a consistent, dependable option for (just about) every gaffer to board and subsequently fall off our managerial merry-go-round.
Tough in the tackle and with a decent right peg to boot, Bardsley cements his spot as the most under-appreciated player we’ve had in my lifetime. Sure, there were bad times in the derbies and under Di Canio, but a Player of the Year award and an invaluable contribution to our Capital One Cup charge ensure that the good memories far outweigh the rest.
Jimmy Lowson says... Seb Larsson!
The first player that sprung to mind after reading this question was a certain red-haired midfielder who I have no desire to heap praise on. I considered Liam Bridcutt, who I always felt received more than his fair share of criticism on Wearside sheerly for what he represented, rather than what he could, or couldn’t do on a football pitch. So, instead I’ve gone for a player who despite being a starter for a majority of his time with Sunderland AFC, has already become an afterthought in most fans’ eyes, Sebastian Larsson.
Larsson started most of Sunderland’s best performances over the past decade, most memorably slotting the only goal in our 1-0 win at Old Trafford. He played in all of the six-in-a-row games against Newcastle United, starting in four of them. Across his time on Wearside he changed position and adapted to best serve whoever was our manager at the time. He scored some truly spectacular goals and started our most recent appearance in a major cup final.
Larsson was brought to the North-East for his technical quality and set piece prowess, but one of the things I’ll always remember about him is just how hard he worked. Especially under Gus Poyet, as an eight who charged up and down the pitch chasing lost causes.
The Swedish international was far from perfect and probably tops the Power Rankings of footballers who try and referee the game themselves, alongside Jack Grealish and Thomas Muller. But when you consider the cult hero status Lee Cattermole enjoys, or the admiration many Sunderland fans have for John O’Shea’s purported leadership, the 34-year-old feels like the forgotten servant from the Ellis Short years.
Chris Wynn says...
When it comes to being under appreciated, especially for a standalone season, the name that stands out for me is Andy Melville.
Bought by Terry Butcher in the summer of 1993 from Oxford United the Welsh international joined a struggling side under Butcher and then Mick Buxton.
Peter Reid came into the fold and all of that changed along with the fortunes of Andy Melville. I don’t think he got the credit for just how influential he was in Reid’s first full season as we won the championship.
A possession based style was introduced and Melville alongside Ord was the perfect player to start our attacking play from the back.
Our defensive record that season was incredible and followed into the Premier League the following year. Despite relegation Melville was almost an ever-present as only five teams conceded fewer home goals than Sunderland.
He was also instrumental in our next promotion two years later as we romped to the title collecting over 100 points and almost 30 clean sheets.
Again, Melville was a class act on the ball and didn’t receive the plaudits behind more visibly entertaining players such as Quinn, Phillips and Johnston.
Melville played a major role in Sunderland’s resurgence during the late 90’s and maybe didn't get the credit he deserved.