The recent Bolo Zenden podcast brought back some memories of when Sunderland could attract such class acts to the club. Bolo spoke about a glittering career that started at PSV Eindhoven where he played with Ronaldo - The Ronaldo - Barcelona, Chelsea, some other place, Liverpool, Marseille and then finishing his career off in the Sunderland under Ellis Short and Steve Bruce.
In the pod, Zenden came across as a gentleman; he spoke well of the club, the facilities and the people. However, there was one part of the interview in particular that I thought was highly significant.
That was his surprise and his evident disappointment at the attitude of the management, the club in general and the players in the week leading up to the final game of the 2010/11 season.
Before the final game of the season, away to West Ham, we were safe. West Ham, on the other hand, had been relegated and we had the chance to finish in the top ten. Zenden alluded to the fact that the club couldn’t care less about striving to finish as high as possible.
That reminded me of a midweek night at the SoL in the days leading up to that West Ham game. This was the night of the player of the year awards, hosted by current non-executive director David Jones. I was lucky enough to be there.
Clearly it was end of season, clearly it was mission accomplished, but the season wasn’t done. The whole of the first team squad were there in black tie and tuxedos. The drink flowed and it flowed and it flowed.
This was the peak of Ellis Short’s wild spending spree. Gyan, Sessegnon, Malbranque, Cattermole, two young stars in Henderson and Welbeck. Turner and Ferdinand and a whole load more.
David Miliband was strutting his stuff on the dance floor to Imelda May who performed live. Sarah Jane Mee was there helping out David Jones with the formalities.
Everyone had a great time, including the staff and players. West Ham away in a few days’ time to finish in the top 10? Nobody cared. Was it important? Did it matter?
This was the Sunderland of excess and missed opportunity. Phil Bardsley player of the year, when in that season he played most games out of position at left back in a squad with the talent of Steed, Zenden, Gyan, Bent, Welbeck, Henderson, Sessegnon and Mignolet? Bardsley was a great servant, but surely there was something wrong.
Was it the manager, who seemed to feel insecure under that owner? The manager who that summer wanted Crouch and Pavlyuchenko but ended up with Wickham and Ji?
Bent had been sold, Henderson was about to be as was Gyan. The quality of Malbranque and Zenden had not been retained.
Quinn would shortly be kicked out. Did Miliband even want to be there? He did enjoy a boogie and got free tickets for Take That the week before. Long-forgotten Chief Exec Steve Walton was also there, soon to be replaced by Margaret Byrne.
It feels like that night was a watershed in our history and Zenden’s point about nobody wanting to improve and be the best rings true.
Why was it all so wrong when it should all have been so right?
Talk of the rotten core or Poyet’s “something in the club not being right” abounded for years after.
Listening to Zenden the other day and thinking back to that night identifies the problem, but it doesn’t tell us why. It’s all quite sad really.