The North East of England and the proud nation of Wales, a land that I’ve made my home for over a decade, aren’t just connected through our shared coal mining heritage and being managed by Chris Coleman. We might not yet have had the pleasure of seeing Declan John in a red and white shirt, but from world record transfers to one season wonders, Sunderland fans have enjoyed the talents of Welsh players going back almost 70 years.
Here are my top 10 Welshmen to play for Sunderland AFC...
10. John Oster
Oh, what could have been. When he arrived as a 21 year old at the Stadium of Light in a £1million transfer from Everton in 1999, fans hoped that we had signed a young player whose natural technical ability and range of passing hadn’t been fully utilised at Goodison Park. Yet John Oster is one of those immensely talented players who never quite reached the heights we had first expected, and whose off-field misdominas are remembered more readily than his on-field performances.
The high point of his six years at Sunderland would be as a regular starter during our third place finish in the 2003-4 Championship, but that season would end in the disappointment of defeat in the Play Off Semi Final to Crystal Palace. This string of consistent performances came a year after the notorious incident with an air rifle that resulted in young Sunderland and England prospect Mark Mailey losing an eye, and a year before he was effectively sacked by the club following an arrest for assault outside a nightclub in Durham.
Oster would go on to play for Reading, Crystal Palace and Doncaster, but wouldn’t add to his 13 international caps for Wales after leaving the North East.
9. David Vaughan
Another Welsh midfielder whose star shone all too briefly for Sunderland is the “Abergele Pele”. David Vaughan had impressed during Blackpool’s solitary season in the Premier League in 2010-11 and, having demonstrated his talents at the top level, he joined Sunderland on a free transfer following the Tangerines’ relegation back to the Championship.
He was in-and-out of the side under both Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill, only scoring three goals in 43 games for the club. That said, they were all absolute screamers. His first for the club was against Blackburn in December 2011, driving home a weak clearance from 20 yards and the second a similar effort a month later in a victory away to Wigan Athletic. But Vaughan will always be best remembered for his third and final strike for Sunderland, a phenomenal left-footed curling goal to seal our 3-0 away victory in the 2013 Tyne-Wear derby. It was the undoubted highpoint of both Vaughan’s two year spell with Sunderland and Paolo Di Canio’s brief and tumultuous time in charge of our club.
8. Carl Robinson
As Oster’s troubles at Sunderland grew, his Welsh international teammate, Carl Robinson, was quietly impressive in our midfield in the mid-2000s. Robinson had made his name as a talented youngster for Wolves, and when he was signed by Sunderland from Portsmouth on loan his performances earned him a permanent deal. Those who saw him play will remember him as was a cultured but no-nonsense stalwart of Sunderland’s 2004-2005 Championship winning side under Mick McCarthy. For me he epitomised that team, which had few big name stars and relied on neat play, organisation and determination on it’s way to dominating the division and gaining 94 points.
Fittingly, it was Robinson who flicked on a cross to score the winning goal at the promotion party game against Stoke City in front of over 47,000 fans in May 2005. I had expected him to kick on and be a key player for at least another season, but when the move up to the Premier League saw him lose his place in the side early in the campaign, Robinson was first loaned and then transferred permanently to Norwich City shortly after.
7. Leighton James
Welsh international and Swansea City legend Leighton James was 30 years old when he signed for Sunderland in 1983. He had made his name in the 1970s as a mavrik left winger for Burnley, Derby Country and his country before guiding his home town club from Division 3 obscurity to briefly challenge Liverpool at the top of Division 1. James was only at Sunderland for a single season following Swansea’s relegation, but he was a key part of a sometimes overlooked side that finished 13th in the top flight - our highest league position since 1955 and a record that would stand for the next 16 years. He made his mark right from the start, playing a crucial role on his debut in Sunderand’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa and went on to play 52 games and score four goals for the Lads.
James’ disillusionment with the sacking of Sunderland manager and fellow Welshman, Alan Durban, and his assistant Pop Robson, almost resulted in his retirement from the game before he signed for Bury where he would have another successful season before moving back to Wales with Newport County.
6. Danny Collins
Buckley-boy Collins was plucked from relative obscurity at Chester City by Mick McCarthy to become one of the most consistent and influential Sunderland players of the 21st century.
His 163 games for the Black Cats were spread over five seasons, and it took him a while to establish himself as first choice centre back during a period that saw us yo-yo between the Championship and Premier League. Once his place in the starting XI was secure under Roy Keane, he became a key member on one of the better Sunderland sides of the mid to late 2000s, reestablishing the club as a mainstay of the top flight.
Despite his resolute performance having earned him a new contract and the club’s 2009 Player of the Year award, Steve Bruce unexpectedly offloaded him to Stoke at the end of the summer transfer window, where he continued to impress in the Premier League.
I think it’s safe to say we let Danny leave too soon, and he’s remained a firm favourite of many fans ever since.
5. Andy Melville
No Welshman has played more games for Sunderland than Andy Melville, and nobody has played more games for Wales whilst on our books, so it should be no surprise that he’s in fifth place on this list.
Unfortunately, by the time he joined us in 1993, he had lost the glorious moustache that had adorned his upper lip at Swansea and Oxford United. Thankfully, however, his combination of composure and assured distribution stayed with him on Wearside and contributed to Peter Reid’s early success in gaining promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 1995-6. That season we conceded 33 goals in 46 league games. Let that sink in for a minute.
His quality was such that he played international football for 5 more years following his successful move to Fulham in 1999, and for those of us who grew up in the 1990s he is a player we’ll always remember.
4. Ray Daniel
Born in the Copperopolis and signed from Arsenal for what was then a world record fee for a defender, Ray Daniel’s seven years at Sunderland saw the club reach two FA Cup Semi Finals and finished third in the league. These are heights we have never again reached, but the period will always be tinged with disappointment that we didn’t establish the elite status we had achieved before the Second World War despite spending princely sums on an all-star team.
The 1957-58 campaign, which had been marred by charges of illegal payments to players that resulted in a substantial fine and bans for club directors, saw the end of Daniel’s time on Wearside. His departure to Cardiff and then home to Swansea City coincided with our first relegation from the top flight, a blow from which the club arguably never fully recovered.
3. Colin Pascoe
As a kid stood on the terraces at Roker Park, I am not sure I fully appreciated the combination of skill, creativity and wonderful mullet that Colin Pascoe brought to the Sunderland side of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Pascoe is yet another former Swansea player in this list and had, despite coming into their side as it slide back down the pyramid, been named in the 1987-88 Division 4 team of the year before his £70,000 transfer to Roker Park. During the four years that he was part of Sunderland squad we twice reached Wembley playing an attractive brand of attacking football to which ‘Pasc’ was central. He scored a not-too-shabby 22 goals in 116 games before moving back down to Swansea Town, and quite why his international career was so limited - he won a total of 11 caps - I’m not sure.
Lockdown has given me the opportunity to look back at that period in great detail and appreciate once more the quality of his contributions. It’s clear from his involvement in the build-up to so many goals why Colin Pascoe stands out as having been vitally important to our relative success at the time.
2. Trevor Ford
When Sunderland signed Welsh international forward Trevor Ford in 1950, he became the “costliest footballer in the world”. It took a record-breaking £30,000 to prise one of the foremost talents in the post-war game away from Aston Villa, where he had achieved a scoring record of a goal every two games before his form dropped away.
Over the next three years at Roker Park he would go on to score at an even better rate - 70 in 117 matches - in what became known as the “Bank of England” team due to the eye watering fees that we forked out in an ultimately unsuccessful push by the club to dominate English football.
Ford’s initial success from 1950 to 1952 trailed off due to a poor relationship with his strike partner, the legendary Len Shackleton, and is why, despite his prolific record, he does not quite claim the top-spot in this countdown.
1. Tony Norman
It will not surprise those who know me that this list concludes with my favourite ever Sunderland player, Tony Norman. The part he played in both in the glorious 1989-90 promotion season and in the 1992 FA Cup run cannot be underestimated. As much as Marco Gabbiadini and John Bryne scored the goals in those campaigns, they would have counted for nothing without the Flintshireman’s heroics between the sticks. His saves against West Ham and Chelsea must surely only have been bettered by Monty’s double in the ‘73 final over the entire history of our club.
Norman’s arrival at Sunderland from Hull in the spring of 1989 for a club record fee of £300,000 made him the third Welshman at the club alongside Pascoe and Steven Doyle. It signalled the switch in mentality within Denis Smith’s side from consolidation in Division 2 to promotion contenders. He was always renowned for his footballing abilities and his sound distribution laid the foundation for the attractive attacking style that marks out the early 1990s as a special time in the life of our club. Norman undoubtedly was a great servant to the club, even returning as goalkeeping coach in the 2000s, and will be fondly remembered by Sunderland fans forever more.