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Sold before their time: Six Sunderland players whose Wearside careers were cut short

Over the years, we’ve had many exciting talents who, for one reason or another, have departed at what felt like the wrong time. Phil West looks back at some high-profile examples

Sunderland v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Michael Bridges (1999)

Kevin Phillips’ summary of Bridges’ sublime ability (‘He had more skill in his feet than the rest of us put together’) has gone down in lore, but it was far a more accurate statement than people perhaps realise.

Like Russell, Bridges had broken into the first team as a teenager in the mid 90s, showing flashes of promise and hinting that we had another exciting local talent on our hands.

It wasn’t until 1998/1999, however, that he really hit his stride.

As part of a fearsome quartet alongside Niall Quinn, Phillips, and Danny Dichio, the youngster was superb, scoring a litany of exceptional goals and often perplexing opposition defenders with his close control and quick footwork. He might’ve often found himself in a backup role, but when the chances came- notably when Phillips suffered a serious toe injury- he invariably took them.

It would’ve been fascinating to see how Bridges would’ve taken to the Premiership in red and white, but a £5 million move to Leeds United in the summer of 1999 put paid to that notion, and we were left to reflect on a Sunderland career that had taken in both heartbreak and success, with his contributions to the 105-point promotion season never to be forgotten.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Sunderland v Nottingham Forest Photo by David Hewitson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Allan Johnston (1999)

Still the best and most exciting winger I’ve seen in the red and white stripes (sit down, Jordan Jones), Johnston was another victim of Peter Reid’s ruthless nature when faced with players whose future was up in the air, but his departure at the age of twenty six was still a shock.

Signed from Rennes in 1997, ‘Magic’ was unplayable on his day.

Able to dig out an accurate cross with either foot and capable of leaving defenders in knots when driving forward with the ball at his feet, he thrived in front of the Stadium of Light crowd and could often be relied upon to chip in with goals from time to time.

Sadly, his time on Wearside ended somewhat acrimoniously, when a move to Rangers eventually materialised before he’d had a chance to really get his teeth into the Premiership. He would eventually return to the English top flight with Middlesbrough, but he would’ve been a perfect player to keep on Wearside as we entered the new millennium with our sights set on a top ten finish.

Allan Johnston of Sunderland and Paul Devlin of Sheffield United

Darren Bent (2011)

Last week, Bent’s former Wearside strike partner, Asamoah Gyan, called talkSport and grilled him on his decision to leave Sunderland in early 2011.

It was an undeniably fascinating, if slightly uncomfortable exchange, and it did sound as though there are lingering regrets about a move that represented a turning point for the club- and for Bent himself.

Signed from Tottenham in the summer of 2009, Bent’s was an eye-catching transfer and his debut season was a huge success. He rattled in twenty four league goals, led the attack brilliantly, and was being talked about as a potential England squad member for the 2010 World Cup.

By early 2011, however, the association came to a sudden and bitter end.

Aston Villa swooped in with a sizeable offer, and Bent, presumably under the impression that a move to the Midlands would boost his international prospects, was off, leaving behind a shattered fanbase and forcing Niall Quinn to try and stem the tide of frustration at the fact a truly top class player had left.

In the short term, the club was able to soak up the blow as we finished tenth, but considering some of the strikers we brought to the club in subsequent years- none of which we really built our attack around- losing a player of Bent’s ability was a bitter pill to swallow.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Blackpool - Stadium of Light Photo by David Howarth/PA Images via Getty Images

Steed Malbranque (2011)

When we raided Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2008, bringing Malbranque, Teemu Tainio, and Pascal Chimbonda to the Stadium of Light, little did we know that only one member of the trio would eventually leave the club having earned the affections of the fans, and then some.

The laid-back Frenchman was a joy to watch, and alongside Stephane Sessegnon, who joined in early 2011, he added some genuine class to our midfield at a time when our transfer business was often chronically hit-or-miss.

However, by the summer of 2011, the picture had changed and Malbranque, despite only being in his early thirties and still playing at a very high level, returned to France, where he would eventually spend five years at Lyon before retiring.

Not retaining his services felt like a huge mistake, and had we kept him, I’m still convinced he could’ve remained a key player, even as Steve Bruce embarked on a significant summer rebuild ahead of 2011/2012.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Aston Villa v Sunderland - Villa Park Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

George Honeyman (2019)

Now plying his trade at Millwall, the former skipper’s move to Hull in 2019 wasn't so much a setback from a footballing perspective as it was an example of an honest and hardworking pro seeing his dream of promotion with his boyhood club disappear in brutal fashion.

Honeyman led the club through its first League One season in 2018/2019, under the management of Jack Ross, and by and large, he actually did a respectable job as the club tried to find its feet again following the pain of relegation from the Championship.

He was never a chest-beating, rabble-rousing captain, and he often wore the mantle of leadership somewhat awkwardly, but he was a useful player, despite plenty of debate about where his best position was, he was far more effective than some of his less successful teammates at the time.

Ultimately, Honeyman’s departure was precipitated by our failure to win promotion at Wembley in the playoff final.

The summer of 2019 was one of rancour and recrimination, and Honeyman was one of the fall-guys when he was sold to the Tigers on the eve of the 2019/2020 season. He eventually won promotion to the Championship before we did, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reception he gets when Millwall visit the Stadium of Light in just under two weeks’ time.

FBL-ENG-FACUP-BURNLEY-SUNDERLAND Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Craig Russell (1997)

This one hurt. A lot.

As a kid, Russell was my first bona-fide Sunderland hero. A quick, tricky forward who lived on the shoulder of opposition defenders and could score in a flash, he made his name at Roker Park during the mid-1990s, with his explosive running and finishing a hallmark of those early Peter Reid years.

Russell’s strikes, including a stunning four-goal burst against Millwall, were key as we secured promotion to the Premiership in 1995/1996. The following season would end in frustration as we were relegated despite breaching the forty point mark, and more than holding our own in the top flight.

At twenty three, however, Russell seemingly had his best years ahead of him, and the move to the Stadium of Light in the summer of 1997 hinted at better days to come, for both himself and the team.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be, as he was sold to Manchester City for £1.25 million before moving on to Tranmere the following year. Long-term, it didn’t affect the team’s fortunes as the likes of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn emerged as superstars, but it was undoubtedly a red and white career cut all too short without its promise totally fulfilled.

Soccer - First Division - Sunderland - Craig Russell Photo by Barrington Coombs/EMPICS via Getty Images

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