Michael Bridges shattered any illusion I had of ever making it as a professional footballer for Sunderland. It wasn’t his fault, of course. But I always remember that dawning realisation when he made his debut against Port Vale on a cold Roker Park evening that I was – for the first-ever time – watching someone younger than me play for the lads.
I always felt a strong affinity with Bridges. Maybe it was the fact he was a very similar age to me – born only a couple of weeks after I was. Maybe it’s the fact that, geographically, we’ve trodden a similar path. Maybe it was the fact he was a bloody good player. But I always wanted him to play, and to do really well when he did.
He came to prominence in Reidy’s first promotion season – who can forget that double against Huddersfield to clinch a crucial three points? Coming on as sub, he scored two – ironically enough, past Tony Norman – to keep our momentum going as we surged towards the title. That season he made only two starts, appeared from the bench on numerous other occasions, and scored four goals.
Chances in subsequent seasons were difficult to come by. The following season, after a serious injury to Niall Quinn, he saw a bit more action – 10 starts to be precise – and netted three times. Two of those came in a magnificent win at Goodison. Given out top scorers (Russell, Stewart and Ball) only had four each, there’s a strong argument to suggest he should have started more.
Upon relegation, we should have really seen the best of Bridges – after a couple of seasons around the first team he probably could – and should – have been trusted more. But the form of Kevin Phillips, and later Niall Quinn, blocked his way to the first team.
For a while, Martin Smith was the preferred third-choice striker, then Danny Dichio. Bridges – through a combination of being out of favour and injuries – started only six times, while the following season – in the title-winning season – he registered only 13 starts.
Bridges was never given a really fair crack under Reid, which is surprising given the impact he made on that 1995-96 season. Dichio was always Quinn’s understudy, and sometimes Phillips’s too. Bridges occasionally replaced Phillips, they were rarely – if ever – partnered together.
Despite his lack of action, his move to Leeds – 22 years ago today – still came as a surprise. I was working in Leeds by then, and the United fans weren’t all that thrilled about paying £5m for a striker who couldn’t get a regular game in the division below.
They quickly changed their tune.
Of course, we all know about his impact at Leeds, the injuries he suffered and his subsequent return to Sunderland. He was a shadow of his former self when he returned, his body seemed to be a moment behind his mind, but he still contributed well – a late winner at Stoke will live long in the memory. A spell at Carlisle rejuvenated him, and while never hitting the heights of previous seasons, gave us glimpses of the player he once was.
Later in his career, he ended up in Australia – first at Sydney FC, then Newcastle Jets. By that time I’d moved to Australia (or AusJailia as we’re now calling it, but that’s another story for another website) and I lived just around the corner from the Jets stadium. A year or two later, after retiring from full-time football, Bridges was turning out for a local park team – the Lambton Jaffas. A two-minute walk from my front door.
It made for an enjoyable stroll out on a Saturday afternoon.
He still had it.
All in all, it was probably the right decision for Bridges to leave Sunderland. It was a case of bad timing really – the Quinn/Phillips partnership has gone down in football folklore, but how good could Phillips/Bridges have been?
If he’d hung on for another couple of seasons, we could have seen the birth of a partnership that would have worked beautifully at Premier League level, but could have made it at international level too.
There’s a sliding doors moment right there.