The Quinn/Phillips partnership had been devastating in its pomp. With Niall’s deft touches and cute all round play, and Phillips playing on the shoulder of the last defender when not dropping deep into empty pockets of space, it was a partnership that was capable of upsetting the best defences in the country.
All good things must come to an end, however. Quinn’s age and persistent back issues meant that manager Peter Reid spent the summer of 2001 scouring the market for a new partner for Super Kev.
Moves for Everton’s Francis Jeffers, FC Twente’s Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Inter Bratislava’s Szilard Nemeth had fallen through – Jeffers joining Arsenal, Hesselink moving to PSV and Nemeth deciding the smog of Teesside was preferable to the fresh air of Wearside.
It had been fourth time lucky, however, when Reid moved for the seven-cap French international striker, Lilian Laslandes for a fee of £3.6m. With 47 goals in 125 for Auxerre and 47 in 119 games for Bordeaux, 29-year-old Laslandes had a proven goalscoring record and decent European experience to boot.
And, on this day 20 years ago, ahead of the club’s opening pre-season friendly on Laslandes’s home turf against Calais Racing Union, Reid was excited about the new arrival’s potential impact on the team.
You don’t play for France a number of times without being a decent player.
The French have a lot of quality attacking players and Lilian has featured for them in recent years.
People have likened him to Quinn, but he’s a different sort of player.
With Kevin Phillips, who is looking sharp, Quinn, Danny Dichio, Kevin Kyle and now Lilian I have some good attacking options. He has settled in well.
And during pre-season it looked as though Reid may have hit on something, with his four senior strikers all among the goals, including Laslandes who struck a double against Torquay United.
Laslandes began the season in the starting line up, partnering Phillips up front for the first two games of the season, a home win over Ipswich and a defeat at Craven Cottage, before missing the Tyne/Wear derby with Quinn preferred up front.
The early signs weren’t promising. Laslandes looked like a poisson out of water – while teammates were playing the ball for him to hold up or flick on, a la Quinn, Laslandes was dropping short for a ball to feet.
As Reid said, he was a different player to Quinn. It seemed that message hadn’t gotten through to the rest of the team – and it never did.
In truth, while he may have been a decent player in his homeland, his style and in truth his application simply weren’t right for the Premier League – or Sunderland.
Laslandes only started five league games, including a game against Charlton at home in which Reid started him alongside both Phillips and Quinn; the latter scoring a treble in a 2-2 draw. Unfortunately one was in the wrong end.
The Frenchman’s only goal for the club game in a League Cup defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, equalising with 20 minutes left before two extra time goals sealed a miserable evening, and by January he’d been shipped out, on loan to FC Koln.
His poor form continued in Germany, and he was promptly sent back to Sunderland – and Reid promptly bounced him back to France, where he enjoyed a moderately successful 2002-03 season with Bastia.
Despite that, two years after paying £3.6m, there were no takers for the now 31-year-old, and his contract was terminated. Two spells at Nice, sandwiching a return to Bordeaux followed, but Laslandes never recovered the form that made him a teammate of the likes of Henry, Anelka, Zidane, Pires… and Stephane Guivarch.
And Reid was never able to find anything approaching a worthy successor for Niall Quinn.