Ask any fan to identify Sunderland’s key performers during our ruthlessly abandoned 2019/20 campaign, and chances are the full backs will be high on their lists.
Playing more often than not as ‘wing backs’ in Phil Parkinson’s 3-4-3 system, Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien became automatic choices after differing starts to the season.
Despite a nervy opening few games, the attack-minded Hume became the latest in a long line of academy-produced left backs to establish himself in the first team.
A firm fans’ favourite, O’Nien had hoped to progress as a number 10 after being used as a makeshift right back by Jack Ross during his first season at the club. But the tenacious former Wycombe man has grown into the right back / right wing back role, and made the position his own.
The current inhabitants have continued a pattern dating back over 25 years. I could go back further, and my dad will rave about the legendary Cecil Irwin, but I don’t want to venture beyond my own first hand knowledge.
Despite our current predicament, and other difficult periods during that quarter of a century, we’ve usually managed to field top quality full backs, or at least full backs who have stood out in whatever division they have played in.
Back in the early to mid 1990s, Sunderland boasted the tough tackling John Kay at right back, while the likes of Richard Ord could comfortably operate on the left.
By the time Peter Reid joined as manager in the spring of 1995, he inherited two full backs who would help take the club from Division One strugglers to the Premier League.
Dariusz Kubicki and Martin Scott both made over 100 performances for the Lads, playing either side of a back four made up predominantly by Andy Melville and the aforementioned Ord. Kubicki was dependable, while Scott had a cultured left foot, could take penalties with aplomb, and dovetailed then left winger Micky Gray superbly.
Ironically, it was an injury to Scott which led to Gray temporarily dropping to full back early in the 1997/98 season, the first at the Stadium of Light.
Sadly for Scott, the homegrown talent quickly formed a deadly partnership with Allan Johnson down the left flank. Such was the impact he made, Gray was selected for England as a left back while still a Division One player in April 1999, before being a key part of the Sunderland side which finished seventh in the Premier League in both 2000 and 2001.
There was a way back for the loyal Scott, who made 14 appearances as a deputy for Gray during the promotion winning season of 1998/99, and he was unlucky to be released at the end of the campaign, before further injury woe curtailed his career.
Sunderland’s most revered right back of the late 90s and early 2000s is Chris Makin, the harder-than-granite defender who would bomb forward on the overlap in support of Nicky Summerbee.
But one who is sometimes overlooked is Darren Holloway, the Bishop Auckland-born full back who kept Makin out of the team for much of that SoL opening 97/98 campaign. He was part of a youthful back four which also included centre backs Jody Craddock and Darren Williams.
A back injury during the pre-season of 1998 saw Holloway lose his place to Makin, while Reid opted to replace Craddock and Williams with the more experienced central defensive partnership of Andy Melville and Paul Butler, in pursuit of promotion after the heartbreak of the Wembley play-off final defeat against Charlton.
It proved to be successful, but the youthful defenders certainly weren’t finished, however, with all of them going on to perform in the Premier League.
Micky Gray, who remained in the top flight with Blackburn after Sunderland’s relegation in 2003, was by no means our only international full back in the new Millennium, as we’ll discover in part two.