On this day three years ago, the Jack Rodwell saga reached its endgame as Sunderland’s new owners reached an agreement with the player that resulted in his contract being cancelled and the player released on a free transfer.
If we are to credit Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven with one positive impact on our club, it is their determination early in their regime to deal with the unsustainable contracts for players left over from our time in the Premier League. Rodwell, along with Papy Djilobodji and Didier N’Dong, were costing the club in a month the equivalent of League 1 clubs’ annual playing budget. It was apparent that these players didn’t want to play for the club, and offloading them became the first priority of the new ownership.
To be fair to Madrox, the initial round of cost-cutting was absolutely the right strategy for the future sustainability of the club, and played well with a fanbase sick to the back teeth of over-payed journeymen seeing Sunderland AFC as an easy pay-day. Jack Ross was building a new squad, and the Scot had no place (and no money) for prima-donnas who wouldn't graft for the cause.
Back in August 2014, Sunderland paid around £10m to secure the services of the 23-year-old England international midfielder from Manchester City, and such was the confidence of the club in the wisdom of the transfer that he offered a 5-year contract worth over £3m-a-year in wages.
We can rightly question his application and attitude once at the club, but he ultimate blame for the length and value of any playing contract does not lie with the player - it lies with the club. Sunderland’s then-owner Ellis Short and the people he employed to oversee the football club on his behalf offered Rodwell the deal - his agent will have negotiated the best terms possible, as was their job, but it was the club’s decision whether or not to meet these demands.
Sunderland clearly thought we were getting one of the most promising midfielders in European football and, as Premier League TV and sponsorship deals kept increasing, being able (or at least willing) to pay £70,000-a-week for a top performer was something of a badge of honour - we were mixing it with the big boys.
Some commentators, blessed with 20:20 hindsight and a large dollop of moral certitude, seem to have expected Rodwell to turn around and demand a lower wage when Sunderland presented his terms of conditions of employment . I’d ask what they would have done if they were in his shoes?
Nevertheless, the transfer was an unmitigated disaster for the club and destroyed the reputation of the player. In his time at the Stadium of Light, Rodwell played 76 times, including 23 substitute appearances, scoring a total of seven goals, and Sunderland won only one in the 43 games he started.
The move to Sunderland was meant to kick-start a faltering career, which had started so brightly at his boyhood club Everton before faltering after his big-money move to the Etihad aged 21. He sat out much of the 2013-14 season, and cut a frustrated figure even on his arrival on Wearside, as is evident in an interview he gave after arriving on Wearside:
I could have stayed at Manchester City and fought for my place, but that would probably have meant being on the bench and being a bit-part player, I could have picked up trophies along the way and a lot of players might have settled for that, but I’ve had two years of that now and just couldn’t do it any more. I’m happy to be here.
Overall, Sunderland were abysmal for much of Rodwell’s time at the club, and he was the symptom rather than the cause of our ignominious fall down to the third tier; too many sub-standard players on big contracts that gave them security but no motivation to succeed, too much short-term thinking, and too many changes of manager.
Many questioned Rodwell’s attitude; here was a potential superstar with all the physical and technical attributes you’d want to see but who seemed utterly demotivated, bereft of confidence and with a liaise-faire attitude towards his employers and his teammates that was featured so prominently on Season 1 of Sunderland ‘Til I Die.
Simon Grayson, reflecting on his time at Sunderland in an appearance as a pundit for BT Sport in January 2019, didn't mention Rodwell in particular but did diagnose the underlying problems within the squad that saw us plummet down the pyramid.
We had players there who didn’t want to be there, there were players were earning a lot of money who didn’t have the drive, the determination to really want to go and run through a brick wall for you week in week out, and some of the players had the baggage of relegation and a losing mentality - and you couldn't get rid of them. One, they weren’t good enough and, two, they were on too much money on long term contracts.
Rodwell was clear, in an interview given after leaving Sunderland, that all he wanted to do was to play football and that the cancellation of his contract had been painful:
I never wanted this. I joined Sunderland, a great club, to be successful, to feel at home again. It hasn’t worked out, but that’s not through lack of effort. Now, for me, it’s not about money, it’s about playing. If that means moving on to help the club in a situation that suited all parties, I would need no convincing.
I’m a footballer, I want a football club. Why would I just walk away and be left jobless? The transfer window has two weeks to run and I’m prepared to do anything to play — any decision will be based on the chance to play football, not money.
His subsequent spells at Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United have demonstrated that all is not right with Rodwell. He made 21 appearances in the Championship in 2018-19 for the Ewood Park club but did not have his one-year deal renewed, and was then picked up by Chris Wilder.
He was on the Blades’ books for two season, but only made one appearance in the FA Cup. Now, aged 30, the player who was once considered amongst the brightest talents in England is once again, amongst the hundreds of professionals spending their summer looking for another club.