When I sat down to think about this a few performances came to mind - Liam Bridcutt against Newcastle in the 3-0 win at St James Park in 2014; Stan Varga against Arsenal on his debut and Kieran Richardson away at Chelsea in 2010 just three off the top of my head - but the one that stands out the most to me is Lorik Cana’s full-blooded display for Sunderland against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light in 2009.
Cana didn’t actually have that many good performances during his short stint on Wearside, but the bravery and aggression he showed in a game that is perhaps more famously known for being decided by a goal scored by a red beach ball certainly asserts the Albanian as an all-time favourite cult hero player amongst the Sunderland faithful.
After taking the lead through that bizarre beach-ball goal - a strike from Darren Bent which deflected off the rogue floating object and into the net, past a rather bemused Pepe Reina - Sunderland defended for their lives in order to preserve their lead. And, at the heart of it was Cana, who rose to the occasion and gave the type of performance Sunderland supporters just love to see from their defensive players.
We kicked and headed every single ball as Lorik charged around the Stadium of Light turf, clearly buoyed by the response he was getting from the fans in attendance. When an injury to George McCartney saw him leave the field at half time, Anton Ferdinand moved to full back and was replaced at centre half by Cana - Liverpool’s attack was no match for the imposing Sunderland captain, who provided the team with the solid base it desperately required in order to secure what was a vitally important three points for Steve Bruce’s side.
When Cana appeared on the Roker Rapport Podcast back in 2018, he spoke about his performance on that day, and admitted that it was perhaps one of the best in his career:
Some days you feel in your best physical condition and the team plays well.
I started in central midfield, I was playing okay but no better than the other, we lost our centre back and I moved back as you remember. Liverpool really put us under pressure and were putting lots of balls in the box and I just felt a responsibility to lead by example.
It could have been easy for us, Bent and Kenwyne Jones hit the post I think. It was an amazing win and it was one of the better games of my career.
I felt like I had a real connection with the Sunderland crowd that day; it was magical.
There may well have been better performances from other Sunderland players during my 25 years as a match-going supporter, but the way Lorik played on that day always sticks out in my mind when thinking about some of the greatest individual showings.
The heart and commitment we saw on display was a throwback to simpler times, when fans at Roker Park were treated to blood-and-guts displays on a regular basis from the likes of Kevin Ball, John Kay and Gary Bennett.
Cana’s display reminded me and many supporters of just how much we love to see our defenders play with aggression, and further evidenced the well-established notion that our fans value a tough tackle or thundering headed clearance just as much as they do scoring an important goal.
Jimmy Lowson says...
In the Ellis Short era it always felt like due to the limitations of our defenders no matter who was playing and who the manager was, we were always vulnerable to being destroyed by a world-class player.
Whether it was Wayne Rooney, Eden Hazard, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo or Robin Van Persie, it felt like every world-class player had at least one signature ‘unplayable’ performance against us.
The closest I’ve seen a Sunderland player coming to matching the unplayable brilliance of modern Premier League greats was Stephane Sessegnon playing away at West Brom in a 2-1 defeat in 2013.
We were awful that day and gifted an average West Brom side two of the softest goals you’ll ever see, but Sessegnon almost single-handedly earned Sunderland an unlikely point.
The Baggies couldn’t get near him. He was playing out wide in a 4-4-2 and whichever side he popped up on - whether it was up against Steven Reid or Liam Ridgewell - they were helpless against him. By the end of the game, when it was obvious Sessegnon was the only Sunderland player capable of destroying a resolute home defence, they started tripling up on the Benin international.
Even putting three defenders on Sessegnon wasn’t enough. He scored a brilliant goal to give Sunderland a chance heading into the final ten minutes, providing that end product he was sometimes accused of lacking.
Sessegnon is the most technically gifted player I’ve seen in our famous red and white stripes, and that otherwise bitterly frustrating day in the midlands highlighted exactly why. His touch, close control, expert footwork, balance and pace were all on show. When Sessegnon played to his maximum even if it was just the odd game, or 15-minute spell, or good 45 minutes here or there, it felt like Sunderland had their own world-beater and genuine star who was comparable to all the top Champions League superstars.
Chris Wynn says...
At times it’s easy to forget but there has been some fantastic performances down the years by players in the red and white stripes. At certain times you just expected Quinn and Phillips to embarrass a centre-half or Allan Johnston to torture a full-back, but it’s a surprise performance that stands out most for me.
For this I have to look back to August 19th 2000 on the opening day of the season against Arsenal at the Stadium of Light. This was the first game at the stadium with the new North Stand extension and so attracted our highest ever attendance at the Stadium of Light at 46,346. After finishing 7th in our first season in the Premier League we were now entering the the tricky second season.
Our transfer business ahead of this season meant that our midfield four that day lined up with Eric Roy, Paul Thirlwell, Darren Holloway and Kevin Kilbane. In addition, we had one debutant in the starting XI - the Slovakian captain Stanislav Varga.
He was signed for around the £1 million mark from Slovan Bratislava in the summer of 2000, and was maybe a surprise to some to be in the starting line-up so soon. Steve Bould had impressed in his first season but had suffered with fitness and had to settle for a place on the bench against his old club.
Once the smoke from the fireworks settled, Varga in partnership with Paul Butler, got underway in marshaling Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu. Even in the warm-up the Slovakian stood out with his long hair and straight back which suggested he meant business, but as the game started he quickly became the player everyone was watching.
As Arsenal tried to play balls into the front two, time and time again the 27-year-old defender would fly out of the back four and either take the ball, the man or sometimes both.
He was simply everywhere. It was as if Peter Reid had wound him up all summer and let him go the moment before kick-off. Winning tackles, headers and even a clearance behind Thomas Sorensen as the ball was goal bound had the bumper Sunderland crowd of its feet.
The goal bound clearance was the incident that prompted even Barry Davies to join in with the excitement in the Match of the Day commentary.
“...Varga is everywhere, it’s a dream start for him”
Barry Davies on Match of the Day
At first when he flew out of position our hearts were in our mouths as he’d be way out of position if he didn’t win the tackle, but each time his long legs would come away with the ball at his feet. As his confidence grew, the commitment was backed up with skill when the 40 yard diagonal balls to feet were displayed.
He was a star, and it looked to everyone that Peter Reid had managed to find another bargain. Even when Arsenal made two substitutions to shake things up, introducing Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp from the bench, it made no difference.
At the end a goal from the ex-Arsenal man Niall Quinn gave Sunderland all three points, but the buzz in the pubs of Sunderland on that warm August night was all about our new Slovakian defender. It was there that the legend of Stan Varga’s debut for Sunderland was born.