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Look after your strikers – goals change games!

Strikers need to be looked after, their egos stroked, and be wrapped in cotton wool before games - so have Sunderland done a good enough job of this over recent years?

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Every successful football team needs at least one gifted goalscorer, and we, as fans, adore and revere them because they bring confidence to the whole side. An in-form goal poacher can change any game in a brief moment, in the blink of an eye, by converting a half-chance into what supporters most want to see – the net bulging after the ball goes past the opposition goalkeeper.

As Peter Reid memorably said a couple of decades ago, “goals change games.”

Sunderland is somehow prospering these days without a recognised goal-scoring striker. Alf Ramsey’s England team, known colloquially as the “Wingless Wonders,” playing a 4-4-2 formation, won the World Cup in 1966. But the current Black Cats’ Team is “Striker-less Wonders” because we have gone many games since one of our strikers has scored. Nevertheless, we are still somehow sitting high in the Championship.

Despite Sunderland somehow currently functioning without their scoring input, all football fans know that strikers are special, and without stating the obvious, they provide the goals any team needs. This last phrase sounds simple, but there is a world of complexity, recruitment strategy, and a world of pain behind the statement.

Competent goalscorers have a unique set of skills and an instinct for finding the net, which means they convert chances much more efficiently than other players. They can be young, old, short, tall, overweight, and often display undesirable traits, such as being quite obnoxious or egotistical. They may not even be team players, despite their team needing them, but they still perform for their side, changing games through their unique talent.

A football team can be under pressure for 89 minutes, but they somehow hold out at the back, and late in the game, the striker breaks free and does what they do best, securing a 1-0 victory. A result like that may not seem fair, but it’s what makes football fascinating; strikers like Manchester United’s Eric Cantona were well-known for preserving their energy so they could score late in a game.

Eric Cantona scores Manchester United v Sunderland 1996

When I mention overweight strikers, I think of our Geordie rivals’ Mickey Quinn, who was “fat and round, and worth a million pounds,” but he netted 57 times in 110 appearances for the barcodes from 1989 to 1992. There’s even a chant, “Who Ate All the Pies,” which has its own Wikipedia page. It has been closely associated with the rotund goal-poacher.

Apparently, Quinn became closely identified with the chant following an incident in a match between Newcastle and Grimsby Town in March 1992 when a fan threw a pie onto the pitch. He promptly picked it up and ate it; not surprisingly, the chant became the title for Quinn’s 2003 autobiography.

The point I am emphasizing is that a striker, even someone like the plump Quinn, having a good day can change a game. These players need to be looked after, their egos stroked, and be wrapped in cotton wool before games.

The key question is, though: has Sunderland AFC looked after its strikers? In the last decade, the answer is clearly a resounding “no.” We have not looked after and kept hold of our prized goal-scoring assets, and that’s why, until last season, we underperformed.

This ill-fated trait was clearly evidenced in Netflix’s “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” series 2, covering the 2018-19 season when Stewart Donald offloaded our star goal poacher Josh Maja (49 appearances - 17 goals) to Bordeaux in the January transfer window, only to replace him with Will Grigg at a rumored cost of £3.5 million. I understand that Maja’s contract was set to run out at the end of that season when he could have walked, but he still ended up as our top scorer. His goals over a full season may well have gained us promotion that year, so he should have been tied down to a longer contract, but apparently, he did not feel wanted. Grigg (62 – 8) ended up as a memorable flop on Wearside.

Sunderland v AFC Wimbledon - Sky Bet League One Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

During the previous year in the Championship, also featured on Netflix, we saw how Lewis Grabban (20 - 12) under Chris Coleman was tamely allowed to end his loan spell early and return to Nottingham Forest. His goals over a longer period could well have prevented relegation in a season when two more wins would have saved us from the ignominy of slipping into League One. It was a case of what might have been, and Coleman clearly had his hands full with other matters, metaphorically firefighting to keep us competitive. But he ultimately failed.

Charlie Wyke (114 – 42) is another recent striker who we failed to keep at the club. We don’t know everything that happens behind the scenes, of course, and his start at the club was underwhelming, covered in detail on the Roker Rapport podcast at the time. However, in the 2020-21 season, he netted 26 times in 42 starts, including the amazing record of 4 headed goals vs. Doncaster on 13th February 2021, with Aidan McGeady supplying all the requisite crosses. Wyke still ended his time at the SSoL running down his contract before leaving for Wigan with no fee involved.

Most recently, we lost Ross Stewart (81 – 40) to cash-rich Southampton, which some supporters and the club management argue was just good business, as he was acquired for approximately £350,000, and we apparently received over £10 million for him. He had won the hearts of the fans, but did not sign a new contract. It was probably the amount of money offered, but if I were a Sunderland board member, I would have made sure that strikers in a class of their own get heavily rewarded. Sadly, that is history now.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As a long-term fan, I fail to understand why players cannot seem to show loyalty to our beloved club. For us, the act of pulling on a red and white shirt and playing for Sunderland would be the stuff of dreams.

Players like Luke O’Nien definitely get it, despite being from the south, so why can’t everybody else? There is the argument that the Loch Ness Drogba may never be as effective a goalscorer again after that horrible Achilles tendon injury at Fulham in late January 2023. Many fans, though, still feel a sense of loss at that departure, despite our 5-0 win over his new club just after he signed for them.

The new system at our club dictates that we shouldn’t get too attached to individual players because the young players we sign and bring on may well be the subject of bids from “bigger” clubs. Part of me says, though, that we are one of the biggest clubs in England, so why should we not pick and choose, and attract the best players, as well as keeping those who emerge from our academy? We definitely need some of the new crop of strikers signed in the summer to emerge as true goalscorers, and for the team to play to their strengths.


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