When I think about players I saw play who didn’t fulfil their potential at Sunderland, two names scream louder than any other.
The first is the superbly talented Kieron Brady, whose career was ruined by injury before he could really get going.
The second is Sean Thornton.
Thornton was signed by Peter Reid from Tranmere, and burst onto the scene as the one bright spot in a disastrously bad season as we went down with 19 points.
After Reid’s still bizarrely-timed departure, Howard Wilkinson took over the mildly ill patient, only to rip out all of the cords, stop all medicines and recommend a treatment plan consisting of no food or water. Just flying geese. All the while, his erstwhile assistant, Steve Cotterill, took a copious amount of notes (“What’s the matter Cotterill, can’t you spell shite?” is still one of my favourite Stadium of Light anecdotes).
Mick McCarthy had a completely thankless task by the time he was appointed and oversaw the last rites as we went down with barely a whimper.
One bright spot in that sorry season, however, was Thornton.
He’d arrived at the club in Reid’s last summer as a 19-year-old in 2002 – his contract had run out at Tranmere, and as it turned out, we’d illegally approached him to get his signature – for which we were fined £1500.
Thornton hadn’t made the first team under Reidy, but had been given his debut by Wilkinson in a FA Cup replay at home to Bolton (Nicholas Medina also made his only Sunderland appearance that evening).
Thornton impressed in a rare win, and kept his place in the starting for the following Saturday’s away game at Everton, in which we went down 2-1.
He made one more appearance for Wilkinson – starting at White Hart Lane in a surprise defeat to Spurs, but when McCarthy came in he immediately put him into the first team – and Thornton started every game that remained that season.
He reminded me of a young Gazza. Stocky and robust, he had the physique to hold players off; the talent to hold onto the ball, drift past players and play killer through balls – and he had a goal in him too. He netted in a home defeat to Chelsea, earning plaudits from both sides – including from Gianfranco Zola.
It was thought that he would be a mainstay in a new-look, young Sunderland side the following season, but having been mysteriously left out of the opening-day lineup against Nottingham Forest – it transpired he’d hit the town with new signing Jeff Whitley prior to the game – he never came as close to fulfilling his potential.
While he got back into the team, it didn’t last – his ‘lifestyle choices’ meaning his fitness, weight and form were entirely unpredictable.
McCarthy, to his credit, gave Thornton chance after chance – and on this day 18 years ago, the 21-year-old Thornton turned in an excellent display from the bench in what proved to be an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win himself a new contract.
Sunderland were sitting in third place after an away defeat to Brighton, and took on relegation-threatened Rotherham at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland took an early lead, with Dean Whitehead scoring a header that squirmed through the legs of Rotherham keeper Mike Pollitt. Pollitt, who’d been on the Sunderland payroll for a brief spell under Peter Reid, was all at sea as Whitehead tamely headed Marcus Stewart’s cross towards goal, and the lads took an early lead.
Julio Arca had picked up an injury and replaced by Thornton on 33 minutes and, with his first touch, the Irishman placed a stunning free kick past Pollitt from fully 30 yards. It was a majestic strike; one which the keeper could do nothing about on this occasion.
With the ground covered in late winter snow, the crowd were treated to another Pollitt error – Gary Breen heading Thornton’s corner straight at the keeper, who once again missed it completely.
Lightning had struck twice, and it – well – struck twice again. Thornton stepped up to take another direct free kick, maybe five yards closer to goal than his first one had been – and it went in Pollitt’s top right corner. Again.
Rotherham did pull one back, but it was of little consequence, as Sunderland claimed a win to blow off the Brighton hangover, and set ourselves up for what would ultimately be a successful end to the season.
He’s scored two fantastic free kicks. He’s got a lot in his locker. There’s no question.
He’s been doing well Sean, he’s been knuckling down and is fitter, certainly. He might have had a start tonight had he not been suspended for Saturday.
Unfortunately for Thornton, that was one of his last meaningful contributions for Sunderland. He also netted in a high-scoring win over Plymouth later in the season but watched from the sidelines as the lads claimed the title and was released from the club at the end of the season.
Spells at Doncaster and Leyton Orient followed – he was released from Orient in 2010 for putting on too much weight – and from there, the then-just-turned 27-year-old drifted into semi-pro football in Wales and Ireland.
Sunderland 4-1 Rotherham
Goals: Whitehead 13, Thornton 36, Breen 49, Thornton 73; Monkhouse 77
Sunderland: Myhre, Wright (Bridges 74), Breen, Caldwell, McCartney, Whitehead, Robinson, Whitley, Arca (Thornton 33), Elliott (Brown 45), Stewart.
Subs Not Used: Alnwick, Danny Collins.
Rotherham: Pollitt, Barker, Swailes, Gilchrist, Hurst, Campbell-Ryce, Vernazza, McLaren, Monkhouse, Hoskins (Warne 83), Butler.
Subs Not Used: Garner, Mullin, Minto, Montgomery.