Tom Atkinson says... Will Grigg!
I have a degree of sympathy with the club’s ownership and recruitment team as they desperately searched for Josh Maja’s replacement last season. If Maja had stayed, I think there’s a very good chance that Sunderland would currently be operating in the Championship; his goals kept Sunderland in the hunt while the rest of the side, at times, struggled to make things happen.
Grigg arrived on Wearside with 9 seasons of League One football under his belt. In that time he managed over 250 appearances with 95 goals - a decent return, especially considering 4 of those seasons had produced 19 or more goals for Walsall and Wigan. As such, many can be forgiven for thinking that Grigg was a good - albeit expensive - signing for a team hoping to push on and secure promotion back to the Championship. Several million pounds would be nothing in comparison to the bump in league status.
That being said, Grigg just hasn’t managed to get firing for Sunderland. I don’t doubt that the style of play doesn’t suit Grigg’s talents; I also don’t doubt that we bought him with fitness issues last season. However, a return of 5 league goals from 38 games just isn’t good enough, I’m afraid, and Sunderland’s desperation to sign the Northern Irish forward was made to look foolish in hindsight.
There’s still time for Grigg to come good, of course, but Parkinson’s reluctance to even include the forward in his match day squads pre-covid shutdown doesn’t bode well for a man that many Sunderland fans would fire the club back to the Championship. Here’s hoping Grigg finds his feet and proves his worth.
Damian Brown says... Lamine Kone!
When Sam Allardyce first walked through the door at the Academy of Light, foremost in his thoughts was surely a back line that leaked more often than an incontinent geriatric.
True enough, his first acquisitions as Sunderland manager reflected this with the introduction of Jan Kirchoff and Lamine Kone, two very different players with a particular set of skills. The former seemed to be well-rounded and reliable head, but undoubtedly Kone made the biggest impact of the bunch.
Under Allardyce, Kone looked like a tank tracking across the back line. He was strong, brave, and he had the initiative and positional awareness that can define a great centre back. He’s responsible for one of my fondest memories as a fan - watching the formidable Yaya Toure throw his bulk into an aerial challenge only to be bounced over an immovable object, having been thrown down so hard he found himself coming up chewing on grass. Exhilarating.
Lamentably, when the FA sounded the horn for Big Sam to step up to the biggest job in the country, whatever charismatic wiles he had been using to foment great performances from the Ivory Coast national seemed to follow him out of the door, and it wasn’t long before Kone began to look disinterested and wholly off the pace.
Perhaps not enough is said of the way a player brought in by a manager can go swiftly downhill, but it’s not at all surprising that it occurs. The dressing room dynamic is thrown into chaos; where good managers know how to pour honey into the ears of potential talent, the player and manager strike up some kind of intent on achieving a shared destiny in the process of attracting the player to the club. Kone bought into Big Sam’s vision for Sunderland - we all did. When Allardyce took his leave the vision faded into obscurity.
Of course it’s the mark of a professional that he does his best for any manager, because the nature of managerial appointments can be so fickle and short-lived. Lamine Kone isn’t blameless in his fall from grace.
Where barely a year before had stood a player allegedly attracting £18m bids thanks to his performances under the manager that brought him to Wearside, was a player that had lost his focus and, perhaps understandably, his commitment to the team. When Sunderland began their rapid decline in Allardyce’s absence it must have been hard to look around and think “Damn. I could have gone to Everton for twice the wages.”
So it is that Lamine Kone, a player with the potential to be a true Sunderland legend, departed for the relative anonymity of football in Strasbourg for a meagre sum. He hasn’t exactly set the world alight since, and I do often wonder if he misses Sam Allardyce as much as we do.
Phil West says... Craig Gordon!
In order to choose what remains, for me, the biggest ‘what if’ story in Sunderland’s recent history, we’ll travel back to 2007.
Roy Keane had got us promoted, the money was available, and the task was to build a team capable of mounting a challenge in what we knew would be a tough season.
Our transfer business during that summer was, let’s say, interesting to say the least. Whilst the likes of Russell Anderson and Greg Halford would fade away without making much of an impact, one player who joined us that summer could certainly have made a bigger impact, had the cards fallen differently.
I’m talking about Craig Gordon. A Scottish international who joined us with a burgeoning reputation at Hearts, and a price tag to match (£9 million! For a goalkeeper! Mega money back in the halcyon days of 2007, but pocket change now). At the time, he was twenty-four years old and looked set fair to (possibly) establish himself as our number one for the next five or six years.
Gordon was a talented, if erratic and somewhat nerve-prone goalkeeper. The 7-1 demolition at Goodison Park during his first season was a black mark, and playing behind a defence that was often less than rock solid didn’t help either. He seldom inspired the immovable confidence that the truly elite goalkeepers do, but he was no Lee Camp, either. Perhaps trying to mature as a goalkeeper in the midst of what turned out to be an annual relegation battle at Sunderland was simply too great a task for him, and he never seemed to thrive in his role as the last line of defence.
Injuries undoubtedly scuppered Gordon’s Sunderland career to a large extent (88 appearances in four and a half years is a brutal statistic) and of course, the arrival of Simon Mignolet in 2010 was another blow to his chances of re-establishing himself. He did, however, leave us one truly memorable moment, with THAT acrobatic save against Bolton, a brief but unforgettable flash of his undoubted ability between the sticks.
Now firmly established as Scott Bain’s back-up at Celtic and consistently linked with a move away, Gordon’s career seems to be winding down. The four years of it that he spent with us were turbulent on and off the field, and to my eternal frustration, we’ll never truly know how good he could’ve been in the cauldron of English football.
Paul Fletcher says... Jozy Altidore!
I can’t remember ever wanting any player to do well in a Sunderland shirt as much as I wanted Jozy Altidore to do well.
First off, as a human being, he seems like one of the best - everything I’ve read and heard from him is impressive. Nothing more so than the fact that, as a 21 year old, he set up a foundation that has been helping underprivileged children for nearly a decade. Fair play.
As a striker, he has all the attributes you would have on your wish list – he’s strong, quick, good in the air and knows where the back of the net is. Unfortunately he struggled to show much of this during his time at Sunderland. There were some glimpses, like a man of the match performance in a derby victory and some good performances in the league cup run to Wembley. Unfortunately, those glimpses were few and far between and his Sunderland career never really got going.
For many Sunderland supporters, Jozy Altidore became a figure of fun. He was quickly written off and consigned to the long list entitled “Strikers who have scored goals everywhere but Sunderland”. See Grigg, W. (2019) for most recent addition to this list. For those reading this and scoffing, I’m not wrong when I say that Altidore is a player with an impressive goal scoring record. New York Red Bulls - 16 goals in 41 games as a teenager. AZ Alkmaar - 51 in 93. Toronto FC - 72 in 141. USA - 42 in 115. And we’re not just talking tap-ins here. We’re talking every kind of goal you can imagine, with both feet. Watching his highlights reels, you can barely believe it’s the same player who scraped 3 goals in 52 appearances for us.
As with any big money signing when it doesn’t work out, he inevitably got an incredible amount of stick from fans in the stands and on social media. Despite this, he never hid in games, the dummy was never spat out and the towel was never thrown in. It just seemed like the harder he tried, the worse it went - but he still handled himself professionally throughout.
When we signed him, I was hoping that he’d make his bad spell at Hull a distant memory. This just didn’t happen and it was more like déjà vu than a fresh start. So in January 2015, it was no surprise to see Jozy on his way out, despite being only 18 months into his four year contract. I’m sure there weren’t many Sunderland fans who shed a tear when they heard the news that he was off to Toronto with Jermaine Defoe heading in the opposite direction. He left with the minimum of fuss and was nowhere near as financially disastrous a signing for the club as many others in the Ellis Short era.
Although a part of me was gutted to see him go, I was mainly relieved for him that he was getting out. It had come to the point where even his most die-hard fans had realised he was never going to ‘come good’ at Sunderland.
A final word on Altidore is that you can’t help but admire his strength of character having completely turned his career around not just once (with AZ Alkmaar) but twice (with Toronto FC). It is no surprise to me that he has forged an excellent MLS career, scoring goals and winning trophies in the red (home) and white (away) of Toronto FC. It’s just a shame we never got to see an in form Jozy Altidore in the red and white of Sunderland.