In part two of my ‘‘Sunderland legends’, click here for part one, I’ve chosen five players from the modern era who all made a significant impact in their own way as the club has gone through unprecedented change and upheaval over the past twenty-plus years.
The midfield enforcer to whom all subsequent midfield enforcers are compared, Ball was a rock-like presence, first in defence, and then in the engine room, for most of the 1990s.
The club entered a transitional period under a succession of different managers during this time, but we had the Hastings hardman constantly at the forefront and leading by example.
Ball was not a native of Wearside, but he understood the club, and more importantly, he forged a connection with the fans that endures to this day. Despite playing his last competitive game for us in 1999, no captain since has come close to having the inspirational effect on the team that Ball did.
He racked up over 400 appearances, scored some memorable goals (think of that diving header against Chelsea in 1996/97), skippered our Division One-winning teams of 1995/96, and 1998/1999, and enjoyed a long post-playing career in a variety of roles at the club, including two spells as caretaker manager.
Whenever the team was struggling and in need of a boost, Ball would rise to the challenge, often putting in a crunching challenge and lifting his teammates in an instant. Without a doubt, he was Peter Reid’s on-field general, and they both shared the same attributes: a desire to win, an abrasive and competitive temperament, and such a combination proved incredibly fruitful as the club’s trajectory went upwards as the decade unfolded.
Arguably Peter Reid’s finest ever signing and one of the club’s most inspirational figures, Quinn’s influence on the club & the city was vast, deep-seated, and enduring. It’s been nineteen years since he played for us, and ten since he departed the boardroom, but his status at the SOL is assured.
On the field, the big Irishman was a dominant figure, giving opposition defences nightmares, dovetailing beautifully with Kevin Phillips to devastating effect during the late 1990s, and often scoring stunning goals himself, thanks to his superb aerial game and deceptively good footwork.
Off the field, he was a unifying, charming, and inspirational figure, active in philanthropic activities and embracing Sunderland and its people from the moment he arrived. If Jermain Defoe was able to forge a strong bond with the fans, Quinn forged one that was utterly unbreakable.
Quinn’s return to the club as chairman in 2006 felt like a watershed moment. He swept into the SOL, bringing the backing of the Drumaville Consortium, the presence of Roy Keane, and the promise of a new dawn. He recognised the potential of the club, worked incredibly hard to rebuild the bond between the club and the fanbase, and took us on a ride that certainly had setbacks, but felt like the club truly was entering an exciting new chapter.
If you didn’t experience it, but want to get an idea of the scale of Phillips’ achievement from the 1999/2000 season, have a look at some of the iconic names that sit either side of him on the list of European Golden Boot winners.
As we charged to a seventh-place finish that season, Phillips ripped the top flight apart, securing his place in the history books as the only Englishman ever to win the prestigious award, and given the standard of strikers on the continent nowadays, it could well be a long time before a fellow Englishman takes the crown from him.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, however.
Phillips was one of the most important (and best value, at only £450,000) signings of the last twenty years, for it was his goals that lit up the Stadium of Light during its early years, and helped to drive the club towards heights we have never reached since.
Small in stature but blessed with supreme ability and pace, Phillips could score goals from anywhere, and was never shy about trying his luck from distance, either. Many of his goals came at crucial times, and during key games (Barnsley, Chelsea and Newcastle, to name three) and by the time he left in 2003, he’d broken the club’s post-war scoring record, and cemented his place as the premier Sunderland striker of the modern era.
Modern-day Sunderland goalkeepers are a curious case. They are often tales of ‘what might have been’ (Craig Gordon), ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ (Jordan Pickford) or ‘hands made of saucepans’ (Lee Camp, Jason Steele), and it’s safe to say we haven’t always struck gold in this department.
One of them, however, stands out.
After Lionel Perez’s decision to swap Sunderland for Newcastle in 1998, Reid opted for an as-then unknown Danish goalkeeper who was making his way in his native country with Odense. A fee of £1 million was paid, and we had the final piece of the jigsaw.
Five years later, Sorensen departed with his Sunderland legacy secured, as he could look back on a career in red and white that encompassed a thrilling Division One campaign, followed by consecutive top-half finishes in the top flight. Oh, and a penalty save in front of the Gallowgate that left Alan Shearer with his hands on his head in disbelief.
The Dane was physically robust, commanding in his area, positionally solid, and was never shy about berating his defenders if he felt they’d got it wrong.
One event that illustrated Sorensen’s affinity for the club came during the parade to celebrate our 1998/99 campaign. Interviewed as the trophy was displayed to a huge crowd at Seaburn, he said that it was superior to the scenes in the wake of Denmark’s Euro 1992 triumph, and that he felt an incredible sense of pride at what the club had been able to accomplish.
This was a tricky choice, because nowadays, Gray is known more for his, let’s say, unique views expressed through various media channels and on Twitter, but if we are to consider his impact at Sunderland, from his debut in 1992 until his permanent departure in 2004, there is no doubt that he deserves his place among the modern-day greats of the club.
A converted winger, Gray was the kind of marauding, pacy player for whom overlapping runs and first-time crosses were all part of the deal, and despite being moved to left-back by Peter Reid during the mid-1990s, his attacking instincts were never fully curbed, and he eventually established himself as first-choice after Martin Scott’s departure.
He also showed incredible strength of character to bounce back from the heartache of the 1998 play-off final, and playing a key role during the following season. Yes, by the time of the 2002/03 season, the wheels had fallen off, and his form had dipped dramatically, but that shouldn’t taint what he did achieve during the eleven years he spent with us.