What makes a great footballer, or team? Is it a measure of their success, or skill, or commitment, or some special relationship with the fans?
We all remember the great teams. I grew up with the Liverpool of the Boot-Room years, the Paisley-Fagan-Dalglish era. Then came George Graham’s Arsenal, followed by the Alex Ferguson development of Manchester United. And now, today, he is challenged once again by Arsenal, of the Wenger-variety. Great players have graced these teams – Dalglish, Rush, Adams, Wright, Cantona, Giggs, Beckham, Henry, Vieira. The teams mentioned were great due to their success. The managers mentioned were great due to their ability to achieve this success. But what about players? Obviously, many players are regarded as great as they were, arguably, pivotal to the team’s success, being the best players at the club at that time. Success, however, is not the only measure of what makes a footballer great.
We have all seen the pictures and footage of Platini, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Best, Moore, and, of course, Pele. Some of us may even have been lucky enough to see them live (or at least on TV!) Our fathers and grandfathers will tell us stories of Finney, Matthews, and the like. But what of Sunderland? Who do we hear about, or talk about?
I had a few favourites, when I was young. Joe Bolton was the epitomy of commitment and surely mad! John Kay and Kevin Ball were later to assume his role. I also remember watching Alan Brown & Wayne Entwistle, and thinking they were pretty good – especially when Brown curled a corner straight into the net! Gary Owers and Kieron Brady followed, for me. Whether these players were as good as I thought, or whether other fans remember these players in the same manner is, obviously, subject to debate.
But three players stand out, and, for me, are great. These are the players that we surely remember with great affection, who produced performances the like we had not seen for some time. Players who affected games and dragged the rest of the team (normally kicking & screaming) into a whole new adventure. Men who, when their time is up, we may shed a tear over and smile as we remember the joys they gave us. Players who, when our fathers & grandfathers talk of Charlie Hurley, we can surely mention in the same breath. The players I refer to are Gary Rowell, Marco Gabbiadini and Kevin Phillips.
Gary Rowell’s position as a legend in both our past and now present, through his media work, may be unquestioned. Gary was the glory boy of Wearside. Rowell joined Sunderland as an apprentice in 1972, turning professional two years later. His debut came on 13th December 1975, when he appeared as a sub in a 1-0 win at home to Oxford United at the age of 18. He went on to score 102 goals in 293 games, including a hat-trick against Newcastle during a 4-1 win at St James Park in February 1979. In addition to these vital goals as the team yo-yoed between the old First and Second Divisions, Gary won international recognition at under 21 level. The era ended in the summer of 1984 and Gary was granted a free transfer in recognition of his efforts. I remember trying to work out how such a great player could be worth so little!
Then, a few years later, came Marco. Denis Smith signed the 19-year-old from York City in 1987 for the grand fee of £80,000. Following his debut on 26th September 1987 in a 2-0 home defeat against Chester City, he went on to score 21 goals as the Lads won the old Division Three Championship. Marco amassed a total of 87 goals in 185 appearances, including 5 goals in his last 9 league games, before signing for Crystal Palace in September, 1991, for £1.8m. Like Rowell before him, Gabbers cemented his place in history by scoring a crucial goal against Newcastle. Both he and his strike partner, Eric Gates, scored a goal a piece in a 2-0 win at St James Park, sending SAFC to the play off final at Wembley, and consigning Newcastle to another season out of the top flight.
Kevin Phillips must now surely take his place alongside these two. Kevin has produced some stunning goals (130 in 236 appearances), broken countless records (he eclipsed Brian Clough’s post war record by scoring 35 goals in his first season and went on to become the first Englishman to win the golden shoe), swayed games with his ability and given so many great pleasure. Countless conversations have been held in local pubs about the man, his ability and his, dare I say, his commitment to SAFC. In a time where players hold clubs to ransom, and move every 3 or 4 years, Kevin’s record at Sunderland stands out. Having being signed for a mere £325,00, at a time when Chris Sutton went for £5m, he must rate alongside Gabbiadini as one of our all-time bargain buys. In true fashion, Kev has delivered crushing blows to the Mags at key times – like during the 1999-2000 season, where the Carling Player of the Year scored 3 goals and helped Sunderland take 4 points off our nearest and dearest. He has stayed longer on Wearside than Marco, yet not as long as Rowell, and has been the inspiration to a generation of SAFC fans. I remember being gutted at Rowell’s free transfer, and even at the £1.8m we received from Palace for Marco. And now, it is a shame the man who’s goals secured a record-breaking Championship and promotion to the Premiership, the man who scored 30 top-flight goals in one season, the man who emerged from the shadow of SAFC to gain International recognition (all too fleetingly) is set to leave, possibly to move full circle and return to Southampton, where it all started for him. Whether he accepts the £3m move, or rejects them as they once did him, Kevin Phillips will surely take his place in the greats of SAFC. I know I will tell my children and grandchildren of the time the Golden Boot winner played for Sunderland.