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On This Day (29 June 1990): Sunderland cult hero Yann M’Villa is born

Signing a French international central midfielder with experience playing in Europe was a big deal for Sunderland in the summer of 2015, but few would have guessed at the emotional journey that we’d go on together.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

A defensive midfield general of true quality, and one of the most popular loanees ever to grace the pitch at the Stadium of Light, Yann M’Villa celebrates his birthday today.

Born into a Congolese footballing family in Amiens, northern France, on this day 32 years ago, M’Villa came through local football in the area before he was picked up by Ligue 1 outfit Rennes as a 17-year-old. Two years in their B team preceded a successful four-year stint in the first team.

Having featured at every age group level for France, he made his breakthrough into the senior squad at the age of 20, and went on to feature in the 2012 European Championship squad. However, his international career was brought to an untimely end when he was suspended by the FFF following an unauthorised night out while on U21 duty later that year.

Soccer - UEFA EURO 2012 Qualification - France. Albania Photo by liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images

Two months later, he was to leave France and join the big-spending Russian club Rubin Kazan in January 2013. However, an unauthorized absence during the 2013-14 winter break saw him fall out of favour and he was offloaded on loan to Internazionale in Serie A in the summer of 2014.

Once again, however, his time was cut short - this time after a dispute with the then Nerazzurri boss Roberto Mancini. He went back to Kazan but was shipped off briefly to Dynamo Moscow, but this didn’t work out either and he never played a game in the Russian capital.

So, after this period of turbulence, at 25 he was offered the chance to revive his career by Sunderland boss Dick Advocaat. A loan deal with the option of a permanent transfer was agreed, and the Frenchman arrived at the Academy to a warm welcome:

I’m very happy to be a Sunderland player. I had a very good feeling training with the team. Every player welcomed me and the feeling was very good with them so I’m excited for the start of the season. I’ve also wanted to play in the Barclays Premier League for a long time so I’m very happy to be here.

Then followed a dramatic season for the Lads during which M’Villa played 40 times, scoring once with a beautiful free kick away at Aston Villa. The great escape under Sam Allardyce wouldn’t have been the same without his energy and class in the middle of the park alongside Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchoff.

The club pulled out of a deal to make his move permanent at the end of August 2015 as the player’s contract in Russia was set to expire a few months later and Sunderland’s owners balked at the reported £7 million fee demanded by his parent club. This, as many fans will remember, left him waiting for a callback and “heartbroken” when it never happened.

Nevertheless, with the club in a desperate state, in December 2015 Sunderland offered him a chance to return and reprise his heroics. It felt like the perfect match, but, according to former Sunderland chief executive, Martin Bain, it was kiboshed by the player himself:

I was contacted this week by Yann M’Vila’s representatives, who advised that the player no longer wishes to join Sunderland.

There was a three-and-a-half-year agreement in place, however after discussions with the manager we have decided not to enforce the contract. Any player that we bring to Sunderland Football Club must be wholly committed.

Yann M’Vila will therefore not be joining us in January and we wish him well for the future.

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Instead, M’Villa re-signed with Rubin Kazan and went on to play for them until moving back to Western Europe - first on an 18-month deal with Saint-Étienne in France and then, in 2020, agreeing a three year contract with Greek giants Olympiacos where he has proven a success.

For many Sunderland fans, he will always be the one that got away.


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