Rich Speight says...
I started going to the match in 1989, a few months after Tony Norman joined Sunderland from Hull for a club record transfer of £300,000, and he remains my favourite player to this day.
In over 350 games for the Tigers he had already established himself as one of the top keepers around and had been called up to the Welsh national team in 1988. His arrival at Roker Park signaled a shift in Denis Smith’s intentions, from consolidation in Division 2 towards push for the top flight and added another Welsh voice to the dressing room that already contained Steve Doyle and classy winger Colin Pascoe.
Out of the dozens and dozens of critically important saves he made for Sunderland over the next 6 and a half years, those during our glorious 1992 FA Cup odyssey stand apart as both critical and memorable. One in particular, his flying one-handed tip over the post from West Ham’s Tim Breaker to keep the score in the 5th Round replay at 2-2, must go down as one of the greatest of all time by any Sunderland goalkeeper.
He went on to be man of the match in our Quarter Final Replay against Chelsea, a game that has gained nigh-on mythic status amongst supporters born before 1985, and hang-on to the ball in the last minute of our Semi Final against Norwich at Hillsborough to send us to the Final. It’s fair to say that we wouldn’t have got anywhere near Wembley that year without Norman’s acrobatics.
Tony holds an extra special place in my heart as, at the same time I was immersed in the 1992 Cup run, I was lucky enough to be attending a Football in the Community goalkeeper training course where Norman, Tim Carter and Jimmy Montgommery took a number of the sessions. I remember him being a lovely man and just being in the presence of your hero at such a time was enough to make a deep mark on 10 year old me.
If it were not for Wales having one of the world’s top goalkeepers, Neville Southall, between the sticks during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, a player of Tony’s class would surely have received more than the 5 international caps he has to his name.
Norman played 277 times for the Lads, leaving for Huddesfield in 1995. After his long playing career came to an end Tony has battled depression and other illnesses, but came back to the club as goalkeeping coach in 2008. Mental health is something I myself have struggled with and was one of the first footballers I remember speaking openly about it, again demonstrating the character of the man.
These stories and personal connections are the things that keep the tradition of supporting Sunderland alive, especially for exiled families like mine. My beautiful, original, early 1990s “Tony Norman” Hummel goalie kit has now been handed down to my 10 year old son, who now dreams of playing for Wales and Sunderland, and he wears it to our away games with pride.
Tom Albrighton says...
Kevin Phillips. It’s that simple.
By the time Phillips had arrived at Sunderland I had been going to Sunderland games for some time, without really grasping what was happening. Why Dad took me so young, even he doesn’t understand but I’m forever thankful for it, not least because it provided me with the chance to see and understand just how amazing Kevin Phillips was.
He wasn’t the fastest, or the strongest but he was by far the quickest mentally out there. He was such a deadly finisher it was incredible to the point it was almost logic-defying. What made me fall in love with Phillips is simple - Phillips was the man who excited people of all ages, a person who all hopes were pinned on, he made people joyous.
It sounds cliche and somewhat pathetic but when as a child - even as an adult - we all have an innate desire to be loved by everyone we meet and that’s what Kevin had. You think of Sunderland and it’s hard not to picture Super Kev in his baggy red and white shirt. Of course, his ridiculous ability drew all towards him, like a magnet for thousands of dreams all lived vicariously through the man himself, but to have the crowd - quite literally - at his feet was a swell one couldn’t help but be swept up in.
In essence, Kevin Phillips is my favourite ever player because not only did he live every young Mackem’s dream, but watching him allowed my young mind to imagine all sorts of wonderment. With Phillips upfront, the sky was the limit and to a young fan that meant Sunderland could achieve anything and everything. He’s the kind of player you’d watch then immediately want to kick a ball about after. He allowed me to dream about what Sunderland would achieve, he facilitated the best Sunderland side I’ve ever seen and when my tiny mind wouldn’t focus on anything for more than 10 minutes, Kevin Phillips would captivate me for 90 minutes once a week.
I don’t think I’d love Sunderland like I do if it wasn’t for players like him.
Phil West says...
Choosing my favourite ever Sunderland player isn’t easy. From Kevin Ball and Thomas Sorensen, to Steed Malbranque and Jermain Defoe, there have been many players down the years who I have gotten great enjoyment out of watching, and who have contributed significantly in one way or another.
In the end, though, I’ve gone for Niall Quinn. Sunderland were his third club in England, following spells and Arsenal and Man City, and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that we were the perfect club for him at that time.
From his debut in 1996 until his retirement in 2003, we undoubtedly saw the absolute best of the big Irishman. Following the disappointment of the 1996/1997 campaign, which ended with relegation, Quinn, and Sunderland, never looked back, as he placed himself at the very heart of Peter Reid’s promotion-chasers of 1997/1998, and then our all-conquering 1998/1999 First Division team. He wouldn’t stop there, though, as he carried his form forward into the new millennium, during which time we flirted with European qualification and (briefly) established ourselves as a force in English football once again.
During his seven years on Wearside, Quinn was an utterly dominant figure at centre-forward. Immovable on the deck, brilliant in the air and with a deftness of touch with the ball at his feet that took many an opposition defence by surprise. His ability as a target man, winning the ball, holding it up and bringing others into play, was top-class, and his devastating partnership with Kevin Phillips was as good a forward line as you could wish for. When Phillips was struck by injury in late 1998, Quinn stepped up with aplomb, and, ably backed up by Bridges and Dichio, ensured that the loss of Phillips would not derail our promotion push.
Niall Quinn and ‘memorable moments’ is a combination that provides so many brilliant memories. The impudent chip against Port Vale, the sensational chest-turn-and volley against Luton in 1998, the arcing, looping header from Michael Gray’s pinpoint cross against the Mags in 2000..........
Quinn wrote himself into Sunderland folklore with his on-field contributions, his off-field tales concerning disco pants, and his return as chairman in 2006 gave us all hope that better days were just around the corner. A true red and white icon.
Chris Wynn says...
I have some fantastic memories of Phillips and Quinn and all those goals, they were a class apart and I loved them for it, but when it comes to favourite players I have two others that jump out immediately.
These two players were the first two Rolls-Royce players that took us to the next level and played in a different way to footballers I’d seen in the flesh in a Sunderland strip, and they are Stefan Schwarz and Steve Bould, and the Swedish midfielder just pips it.
I remember watching in awe on his home debut against Watford in the Stadium of Lights first ever Premier League game, that every touch oozed class.
He would look after a football like nothing I’d seen before, never surrendering possession and making the very simple look extraordinary.
As well as a top class touch and footballing brain, he could put his foot in. A whole host of players over the years have struggled to realise that putting a shift in at Sunderland takes you a huge way to acceptance on the terraces.
Combine that ability to graft with being able to play then you will e loved at our club and Reidy knew exactly what he was getting his hands on when he broke our transfer record in the summer of 1999.
Considering the previous seasons exploits, it’s incredible to think that we didn’t miss Allan Johnston and the left hand side and did so well. A big part of that was the purchase of Stefan Schwarz.
Injuries and age meant he didn’t make as many appearances as we’d have hoped but a privilege to watch him in the red and white stripes.
Mark Carrick says...
Having been introduced to the love-affair that is Sunderland AFC in the era of Joe Bolton, Kevin Arnott and Gary Rowell, there have been many ‘favourite player’ nominations I can give from the years I’ve been a fan.
The player I have chosen, though, is Marco Gabbiadini. He came into our lives at perhaps our lowest ebb, having been relegated to the old Division Three and struggling to adapt. The arrival of this confident young man who immediately declared himself to be our best player became the catalyst for a revival that would propel us all the way to Division One.
Marco changed the way we approached Saturday afternoons. We were now expecting to win every weekend and we expected Marco to score. The crowd would sing his name like no-one else and the feel-good factor around Roker Park was electric.
Marco was part of the team that I still remember with great affection, led by Denis Smith and alongside the likes of Gary Owers, Kieron Brady, Paul Bracewell and Kevin Ball.
Marco’s relationship with Eric Gates was stuff of comic books, his goals against the Mags stuff of legend, and his departure worthy of collective mourning.
Marco will always have my affection and thanks for the impact he had upon on beloved Sunderland.