I started coming to the match regularly with my Granda in 2010, and he didn’t have a clue who any of the players were. The only one he cheered was Kenwyne Jones, whose distinctive figure was impossible to mistake. The rest of the squad were interchangeable as far as Granda was concerned. But during our first game in our new seats, we watched one diminutive player charge down the wing and whip in a cross that veered in mid-air and forced a save from the keeper. A noise rose from the crowd which didn’t exactly sound like a cheer. Granda turned to me, baffled, and said, “Here?! What are they booing the poor lad for?” I had to explain that what he could hear wasn’t a boo, but a “Steeeeeeeeed…..”
A Belgian-born French midfielder, Steed Malbranque was a contradictory character. He came to us from Spurs having failed to have the same impact he’d achieved at Fulham, where he’d been lauded as a creative playmaker. It took him a season to settle in with Sunderland but by the time we got to see him he’d regained some of the sparkle that had turned so many heads earlier in his career.
He was never the fastest player on the pitch, he only managed 1 Premier League goal in over 100 appearances in a red and white shirt, and he was one of Tony Blair’s favourite players... but the Sunderland crowd didn’t seem to hold any of that against him. What Malbranque lacked in speed he made up for in tenacity. He was a great tackler, and he’d run the whole 90 minutes, which are two qualities that never fail to win over the crowd at the Stadium of Light. He retained the creativity he’d built his career on, picking out passes to the likes of Jones, Bent and Campbell that were unselfish, and reliably accurate.
Standing at 5’6” he was never a commanding presence on the pitch, but he had a great habit of running with the ball, delighting in bamboozling the opposition with technique that often left most of his team-mates in the dust.
When he put his head down and charged the box, a buzz of excitement gripped the crowd, even if the odds of him scoring were close to zero. The fact that he scored a cracking goal against Hull, then embarked on a 2 year, 92-shot dry-spell just seemed to give him an underdog charisma that cemented his fan-favourite status.
Despite a tragic inability to put the ball in the back of the net, Malbranque was always so enjoyable to watch because of his trickery.
I clearly remember one game where Malbranque had run the ball down the left wing and found himself hemmed in at the corner flag with two big defenders crowding him. Steed had his foot on the ball, holding off one of them while the other stood poised to block any escape. Steed twisted to try and squeeze off a cross, but the ball ricocheted off the defender and shot vertically into the air. Malbranque leaned back into one defender, clawing up turf while the other waited for the inevitable bounce to allow him an easy clearance. The ball landed on Malbranque’s boot like a ball-bearing hitting a magnet. A murmur of appreciation rippled through the crowd, then he was past the two defenders and threading the ball into the 6-yard box.
We were too busy clapping the skill to cheer on the shot that followed it.
A lot of fans were disappointed to learn that Malbranque was to be released. Steve Bruce declared him to be surplus to requirements and, given his wages and limitations, it was a fair argument. But none of the players Bruce went on to buy had that sprinkling of class that Malbranque always brought to the pitch.
He was an entertainer, the kind of player we’d grow to miss as the seasons wore on.
Fast forward a few years to the season just finished, and I’m in the same seat. Granda has long since retired from active fan-duty, and my Dad has inherited his ticket. It’s Saturday, almost 3’o’clock and we’re watching the team warm up.
Chris Maguire has wandered over to the middle of the pitch on his own, taking a ball with him. Grinning to himself, he blasts the ball skyward then tries to catch it on his foot. We watch as it rolls off this way and that way… Then it bounces off his shin and needs someone to fetch it back for him… He manages maybe 2 of 12 attempts. Its only at this point that I realise why the sight of this is irritating me so much.
I nudge my Dad, not bothering to explain my thought process, and jab a finger towards Maguire. “He wants to try that on the corner flag, during the game, with a pair of defenders on him!” Dad just glances up from his phone and watches as yet another attempt goes astray. “Nah. He’s having enough trouble as it is.”