Glenn Loovens, Alim Ozturk, Jimmy Dunne, Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan.
Not exactly a ‘who’s who’ of defensive icons, but they were just some of the names that could be found in our backline during the League One years, as we tried desperately to construct a defence that could be the foundation on which a promotion challenge was built.
However, as we continue to compete strongly on our return to the Championship, we can finally call on a defender (among many) who is reliable, consistent, and seldom puts a foot wrong.
That man’s name? Danny Batth.
Simply put, Batth’s been nothing short of a colossus for Sunderland this season.
His physical, no-nonsense style is exactly what you want to see from a central defender in the red and white stripes, and his professionalism, on-field leadership and his obvious commitment to the cause are all values that you simply can’t put a price on.
Many of our players have shone this season; Amad, Jack Clarke, Aji Alese and Ross Stewart among them, but the imposing centre-back has been equally influential in his own way.
Much has been made about the lack of experience within Sunderland’s ranks, but Batth, with his pedigree from Stoke and Wolves, has stepped up to set an example.
Along with our other senior players, he leads and others follow, and this is a huge reason why our team spirit is so strong nowadays. There are no cliques and no rampant egos- just a bunch of lads who are striving to improve, and he’s at the very heart of it.
And yet, despite his status as one of our generals and an automatic selection at present, his time at the Stadium of Light hasn’t been plain sailing.
When he moved to Wearside from Stoke in January, his transfer came as something of a surprise, and was certainly intriguing.
Here was a vastly experienced, Championship-proven defender slashing his wages and dropping down a division in order to play his part in the Sunderland revival. What was the catch? Was this another hit-and-hope move from the recruitment team, or was there some shrewd thinking at play?
His debut against Portsmouth was solid enough as we edged to a 1-0 victory, but then came that fiasco away at Bolton, a game that ultimately cost us a head coach and raised all sorts of questions about exactly what was happening at the club and why we were prone to these kind of hammerings.
One own goal and a haphazard performance later, and Batth, along with his teammates, found himself under pressure as the fans turned and our promotion challenge looked to be in real danger of falling apart.
Nevertheless, things weren’t all bad. Lee Johnson left, Alex Neil arrived, and new life was breathed into our season.
During the closing weeks of 2021/2022, and particularly during our playoff run, Batth forged an impressive partnership with the teak-tough Bailey Wright, and this season, as injuries have forced Tony Mowbray into reshuffles, he’s been paired with Luke O’Nien to superb effect.
If O’Nien is the better ball player, his partner is the classic nuts-and-bolts kind of defender; someone who’ll do the hard yards and who takes a great deal of pride in every block, clearance, or crunching challenge.
He’s not flashy and I get a sense that he’s not keen on the limelight, either. He puts his boots on, does his job, and then he takes a shower. No messing, no frills.
Indeed, I see him as a modern-day Paul Butler, and that’s as fulsome a compliment as I can pay. When the likes of Dan Ballard are fit, they’re going to have a job on their hands to dislodge him from the team, but what a dilemma that is for Mowbray to have.
If Sunderland’s transfer business during the past eighteen months has sometimes been hit or miss, Batth has emerged as an absolute gem.
He’s a classic example of a relatively unheralded player arriving at the club and winning the hearts of the fans through his performances and his influence on the team. Every football club needs a figure like Batth, and we should be grateful that he’s ours.