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The ‘what could have been!’ Sunderland XI

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Our recent podcasts with Tobias Hysen and Denis Smith particularly made me think about other players and managers who’ve left too early or, for whatever reason, we were unable to keep in the red and white. Here’s my ‘What Could Have Been XI’!

Sunderland v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Goalkeeper: Shay Given

While Jordan Pickford is another obvious choice, the decision not to stump up the cash for the 19-year-old Shay Given in the summer of 1996 was one we lived to regret. The scrawny teenager arrived on loan from Blackburn after only a handful of games on loan to Swindon and was immediately thrust into the first team by Peter Reid, replacing the experienced Alec Chamberlain.

Seventeen games, eleven wins, one defeat and 12 clean sheets later, Sunderland were on the verge of promotion, when an injury at Barnsley meant he missed the run-in. Given was exceptional during that period of time – athletic, strong and incredibly brave – he was like a one-man defence on occasion, and helped a defensively minded Sunderland team claim the title.

The regard he was held in at Sunderland during the time is illustrated by the fact that on the Cheer Up Peter Reid CD that was released by A Love Supreme, the spine of the CD sleeve had the immortal SHAYISGOD printed on.

Of course, he wasn’t signed, and a year later he joined his old Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish up the road, where he played over 350 games, and earned over 100 caps.

Republic of Ireland Portrait Session Photo By David Maher/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Right-back: Alan Hutton

After Chris Makin’s departure, we’d tried a number of right-backs, all of whom had failed to live up to the standard of the Mancunian Cafu. From Bernt Haas to Mark Lynch, Stephen Wright to Greg Halford, many had tried and only Phil Bardsley had come close. That was until the arrival on loan of Alan Hutton.

The Scottish full-back had commanded a hefty £9m fee when transferred from Rangers to Spurs and, having been unable to cement a place in Harry Redknapp’s team, Steve Bruce brought him into a team that included Darren Bent, Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole, Bolo Zenden, Kenwyne Jones and Kieran Richardson, and Hutton flourished. A marauding, six-foot-plus defender, he had speed and skill and added a significant amount of attacking flair. He played only 11 games – his appearances that season curtailed by a sending off at Hull following an altercation with Jozy Altidore – and Bruce failed to seal a deal.

Hutton went off to Villa, and the on-loan Nedum Onuoha took his place in the team the following season. However if we had signed him we wouldn’t have got to see Santiago Vergini at right back so, you know, silver linings.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Hull City v Sunderland - KC Stadium Photo by David Howarth/PA Images via Getty Images

Left-back: Marcos Alonso

Arriving on loan in the January of Gus Poyet’s first season, Alonso was a catalyst for that great escape miracle. A cultured left-back, Alonso added defensive security and attacking threat, and improved the team significantly.

Having previously had an underwhelming spell at Bolton, hopes weren’t all that high for Alonso upon his arrival, but he starred in the side and, at the end of the season, returned to Fiorentina with Sunderland unwilling to pay the – rather reasonable – reputed £3.5m the Italians wanted.

Fast forward two years and Alonso got his return to England – a £24m move to Chelsea. Now capped by Spain, Alonso still retains a great deal of affection for Sunderland, judging by his social media posts. But for some penny pinching, it could have been much, much more.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Centre back: Jonny Evans

While there was never a major chance of us signing Jonny Evans, you feel if one man could have persuaded him his future lay at the Stadium of Light, rather than the self-styled Theatre of Dreams, it would have been Roy Keane.

Initially signed in the January of Keane’s first season, Evans’ arrival, plus that of Carlos Edwards and Stern John, proved to be the catalyst to our remarkable surge up the table. A mainstay in central defence alongside the man, the myth, the legend that is Nyron Nosworthy, Evans oozed calmness and class and shored up what had been, at times, a suspect defence.

We weren’t able to secure another loan deal in the summer, however the centre back we signed to replace Evans, Paul McShane, wasn’t anywhere near the class of Jonny boy, and the Northern Irishman headed back to Wearside in January, playing a major role in surviving our first season back in the top flight.

While Evans went on to have a long and successful career at United, signing him wasn’t completely beyond the realms of possibility at the time. With Ferdinand and Vidic staples in United’s team, it was Evans and a certain Gerard Pique who were understudies. Fergie couldn’t keep hold of both and, for a few reasons, it was Pique he decided was the more expendable.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Barclays Premier League Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Centre back: John Mensah

What a centre back. Signed on loan from Lyon twice by Steve Bruce, Mensah was a Rolls Royce of a defender. Good in the air, quick and strong, he was always in the right place at the right time to intercept or tackle.

Unfortunately, the Ghanaian was made of glass. Or something less durable. Unable to train properly during the week, Mensah could never string a run of games together, suffering from repeated hamstring and thigh injuries. Over the course of two seasons, he managed only 35 games. In any position, it’s difficult to accommodate such an injury-prone player, but in central defence, it’s nigh-on impossible – however, Mensah’s form and talent made it something we just had to do.

A fully-fit Mensah would have been the most important player in that side – however, the reality is, a fully-fit player of Mensah’s quality would have been a Champion’s League regular.

After leaving Sunderland, he only managed another handful of games professionally – a real shame for such a brilliant player.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Right midfield: Allan Johnston

It’s still a disappointment to me that Allan Johnston’s Premier League games all came when we were still at Roker Park. Signed from Rennes in a desperate bid to stay up, Johnston figured infrequently at the end of that season, fellow new signing Chris Waddle outshining him. While Johnston does have the distinction of scoring the last competitive goal at Roker, he’s best remembered for his partnership with Micky Gray down the left flank during our first two seasons at the Stadium of Light.

A wonderfully talented and clever player, who could twist and turn, cross and shoot, he was a joy to watch. He played 81 games in those two seasons, scoring 18 goals, and alongside Kevin Phillips, Michael Bridges and Lee Clark was one of the players who genuinely seemed Premier League quality. However, Johnston, Bridges and Clark were all transfer-listed by Peter Reid on the same day in pre-season – Johnston, who had one year of his contract left, had refused to sign a new deal in a bid to get a move to Rangers.

A year in the reserves followed, punctuated by loan spells at Bolton and Birmingham, before he got his move to Glasgow the following summer.

Allan Johnston celebrates

Centre midfield: Don Hutchison

Putting the ‘never buy a mag’ argument to bed with Bob Stokoe, Don Hutchison provided probably the best, most consistent quality midfield performances I’ve ever seen from a Sunderland player in the past 30 years.

Playing from a narrow position on the right-hand side of midfield, Hutchison added quality passing, attacking focus and a deft touch that was much needed. Replacing Nicky Summerbee in the side, Hutchison helped bring a bit of experience, guile and surprise to an attack that was effective yet somewhat predictable.

Arriving in the summer of 2000, a Hutchison-inspired team charged up the league, challenging at the top at the turn of the year before tailing off and finishing seventh, only four points off a European place. Hutchison scored an impressive 10 goals in 35 games that season, and looked to have all of the qualities to become a long-term favourite at the club, before deciding, two games into the next season, that he was off.

Broken promises about contract upgrades was the shout from one side, unrealistic demands from the other. Regardless, back to West Ham it was, and Sunderland lost one of the best midfielders of many a generation.

Sunderland v Man City

Centre midfield: Claudio Reyna

Captain America arrived from Rangers as one of Peter Reid’s final throws of the dice. Notionally replacing Don Hutchison in the team as a ‘name’ midfielder, Reyna scored on his debut in a 1-0 victory over Everton just before Christmas and played a major role in guiding us away from the relegation zone.

Two spectacular goals at home in a 2-1 victory against Leicester (it was very nearly three, as another Reyna long-ranger went close) were a highlight and promised much of things to come. Reyna was earmarked as a focal point for Reid’s new-look side the season after, however, a number of poor buys for a team looking to improve in the top flight – including Tore Andre Flo, Steven Wright and Marcus Stewart – culminated in Reid’s departure.

Of course, Reid was replaced by Howard Wilkinson for an ill-fated spell in charge, which might not have been so ill-fated had Reyna not suffered a season-ending injury in Wilkinson’s second game, away at Bolton. After just 29 games and 4 goals, Reyna departed after relegation for Manchester City, where he spent four successful seasons.

His son, Giovanni, born in Sunderland, is now starring for Borussia Dortmund. If Reyna hadn’t got injured, who knows how our season, and Howard Wilkinson’s managerial career, would have panned out.

Alan Smith and Claudio Reyna Photo By Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Left-wing: Kieron Brady

The esteem in which Kieron Brady is held by those who saw him play tells its own story. I was fortunate enough to be one of those people – and it’s no exaggeration to say that, if we knew Brady was probably going to be in the squad, we turned up early to watch him warm up. The tricks he performed while warming up, including a routine where he kept the ball up, launched it in the air, dropped to the ground to do two or three press-ups, got back on his feet and caught the ball on his left foot, were unbelievable to witness first hand.

A tremendously skilful winger, Brady could do it all. Dribble, cross, run, shoot – he had everything in his locker and used it to devastating effect. Forcing his way into Denis Smith’s talented 89-90 team, he played a significant role in a good spell of form towards the end of the season. The game at home against West Ham is the one that people remember.

But better, perhaps, were his performances at Bradford and Sheffield United around the same time. He performed impressively in the latter stages of the 90-91 first division season, too, scoring against Crystal Palace, and was on the bench for the FA Cup semi against Norwich in 1992, but sadly, Keiron’s career was eventually curtailed by injury after only 18 starts, 22 sub appearances and seven goals.

Kieron Brady - Sunderland Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images

Centre forward: Marco Gabbiadini

Strange choice? Maybe. After all, Gabbas played over 180 games and scored 87 goals in four and a bit seasons. But he was only 23 when he left the club, and his best should have been to come. He was signed by Crystal Palace to replace the Arsenal-bound Ian Wright - that’s how highly he was rated – but after leaving Roker his career never really hit the heights it could and should have. And we went into decline, too.

A powerful, pacey striker who scored all manner of goals – he was equally adept at being in the right space at the right time as he was rifling one in from 20 yards with very little back lift – it’s easy to forget just how impressive, highly rated and coveted Marco was at the time.

Denis Smith sold Marco to give the team a facelift. But what if he’d stayed at Sunderland, where he was an absolute hero? Maybe Denis wouldn’t have been sacked, and he could have led us back up to the top flight, rather than spending the next few seasons in the bottom half of the league. Not selling Marco may have avoided the Butcher and Buxton years… And that would surely be worth it in itself.

Marco Gabbiadini Sunderland AFC Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images

Centre forward: John Byrne

Byrne was a beautiful player – skilful, mercurial and with an eye for goal. His place in Sunderland folklore is cemented thanks to the FA Cup run of 1992, however, he spent just less than a full year at Roker Park. It was a move that had been a long time coming – Denis Smith, his manager at York, had tried to sign the Republic of Ireland international twice before – once upon his arrival at Sunderland, and again when we were promoted in 1990.

Imagine Byrne and Gabbiadini upfront. It could, and should, have happened. Byrne played just 43 games, scoring 15 goals - 7 of which came in the FA Cup. After a poor start to the 1992-93 season under the dubious guidance of Malcolm Crosby and Bobby Ferguson, Byrne was sold to Millwall where he scored only once in 17 games, and while he played over 100 games after leaving Roker Park, he never hit the heights he did while wearing the red and white stripes.

Soccer - FA Cup Semi Final - Sunderland v Norwich City Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Manager: Sam Allardyce

Ah, Big Sam and Sunderland. Only Big Sam and a pint of wine is a better union. It seemed that, at long last, we’d found our perfect manager. As a former player, and a former coach under Peter Reid, Allardyce understood the club, and it showed.

The team he put together with the help of his agent mates during the January transfer window was probably the best top-flight team we’d had since the early days of Steve Bruce’s reign. Balanced, exciting, motivated – the team connected with the crowd, and vice versa - and that was down to Sam. He got the best out of Defoe, and at the conclusion of the Everton game it seemed we were at the dawn of something spectacular.

Of course, it didn’t happen. Whether or not England came calling, it looked like he might have been off. Either way, the fact he left, and was replaced by Lord Voldemort, is one of the major reasons for our footballing demise.