When I look back at players who failed to make the most of their ability at Sunderland in the past 20 years – either through circumstance out of their control or through their own fault – Nicolas Medina and Sean Thornton immediately spring to mind.
In the summer of 2001, Medina followed the trail blazed by Julio Arca nine or so months earlier by joining Sunderland from Argentinos Juniors. The 19-year-old midfielder had made 48 appearances for his club, and was also an Argentina u20 international, as Julio was, and joined for £3.5m, the club’s joint biggest summer transfer.
The presumption was that Medina would be thrown straight into the team, just as Arca was, but in the 14 months Reid managed Medina, he wasn’t so much as named on the bench. His absence was a continual puzzle, rarely – if ever – warranting comment from the gaffer.
The following summer, another midfielder arrived – although this one for a much more modest fee. Sean Thornton, a young Irish midfielder, signed from Tranmere Rovers for a tribunal-set fee of £225,000.
With pressure cranking up on Reid, Thornton – nor Medina – were risked, and the manager departed without giving either of them a sniff of first-team action.
Upon Howard Wilkinson’s arrival at the club, he first threw youngster Michael Proctor into the first team, and in a FA Cup Third Round Replay 19 years ago today, he handed belated debuts to both Medina and Thornton.
The teams had drawn 1-1 at the Reebok Stadium in a game notable for Mark Rossiter’s brief sub appearance. In one of only three games for the club, Rossiter replaced the injured Stephen Wright in the 16th minute, before being forced to leave the action himself only 11 minutes later. Kevin Phillips equalised Michael Ricketts’ first-half opener for Sam Allardyce’s team (it’s easy to forget just how good Ricketts was at this point) and set up a Stadium of Light replay 10 days later.
Wilkinson’s team selection in both games showed clearly where his priorities lay, but the crowd was keen to get their first looks at both debutants – and neither disappointed.
They were both bright sparks in a game that showed why we were struggling to get clear of the drop zone. A strikeforce of Marcus Stewart and Kevin Kyle – in place of rested first-choice partnership of Phillips and Tore Andre Flo – failed to provide a serious threat to the Bolton goal.
Sean Thornton – producing a bright, creative and energetic display – showed up well, and forced a save from Kevin Poole in the Bolton goal, while Medina controlled the midfield thoughtfully and skilfully, showing a lovely touch and a great range of passing.
With the scores level at full time, Julio’s mate was withdrawn, but it was Julio himself who scored the first goal of the game – firing home after a Kyle lay-off.
A moment later it was two, Proctor – who’d come off the bench to replace Michael Gray on the hour mark – neatly turning to score past Poole.
Sunderland progressed to a Fourth Round tie at Blackburn, in which Medina would be named in a matchday squad for the only other time in his career, despite being highly praised by Wilkinson post-Bolton.
Following relegation, he was loaned out to Spanish club Leganes, before joining Real Murcia on a permanent basis the following year. He holds the unenviable record of being the most expensive Sunderland signing to never make a league appearance for the club.
He spent a long career in South America after his Spanish sojourn, winning a solitary international cap in a 2004 World Cup qualifier against Peru.
Thornton, meanwhile, was given more opportunities at the club, winning high praise from Gianfranco Zola after a lovely goal in a late-season clash at the Stadium of Light after relegation was confirmed.
For all his ability, however, he failed to truly make his mark at Sunderland, but was a player I genuinely loved watching. A superbly talented player who should have had a long career in the top flight, his ‘lifestyle’ issues were at the root of his downfall, and after eventually leaving Sunderland in 2005 he spent four or five years in the lower reaches of English football before wrapping up his pro career at the age of 28.
A great waste of an excellent talent – but at least those 14,550 who turned up at the SoL on that cold evening got a brief glimpse of what the future may have held if fates had contrived to spin a different web.
As it turned out, when Bolton returned to the SoL two months later, Wilkinson was no longer in charge, and Sunderland were all but relegated.