My number 1 Sunderland player? In what way, number 1? Most admired? Super Kev or maybe Bally.
Most talented? Frank Worthington or Kieron Brady. Most adored? Gabbers or Rowell.
But they’re all quite predictable, and subject to constant change. I currently desperately want Luke O’Nien to step up and be legendary. Briefly John Byrne was the greatest human being alive so to give one answer is hard.
So, I’ve decided to take a different route. I’ve chosen a player and a period of time that sums up my 43 years watching the club. A player who encapsulates the journey. Like the club, he wasn’t bad, he gave 100%, there was hope and expectation and then the inevitable subsequent let down.
My number 1 most Sunderland player is Shaun Cunnington.
And I’m not taking the mick. I genuinely thought he was great. I always like players who play in that ‘central midfielder who makes runs into the box’ mould and, if I’m honest, it was a time at the club where any positive attributes at all gave fan favourite potential.
Even his signing was very Sunderland. We’d lost our only decent central midfielder when Le Brace left after the cup final and moved to, well, let’s not go there and Malcolm Crosby, the man that no one thought could be the manager permanently but was, signed the Grimsby captain for £650,000 to replace him. And, for those who are mocking that he was the same price as N’Dong’s big toe, that was a lot in those days.
He wasn’t so much a box to box midfielder as a half way line to box midfielder. Effective, strong and, for me, most admirably of all, he never stopped trying. He chased every ball, pressed full backs and created space for Dav and Don.
Even when injured he turned up to training and gave 100%. There is a story that, after one heavy contact in midfield with an opposition player, he was sponged down by the legend that was Steve Smelt and played on. He said his chest hurt after the game and it was agreed he’d rest up. There was a midweek game which, although he started, he came off during the second half. On the Thursday (five days and about 90 minutes of football after the initial incident) they decided to have him x-rayed. The two broken ribs would have floored most but not Cunnington. He played through the pain of his ribs and the pain of playing in a midfield with Brian Mooney.
His most famous and most Sunderland injury came the day he ran out to warm up and tripped over the lip at the edge of the pitch. It ruled him out for an extended period and when he returned, his fifth manager (yes, in three years) had already decided to go back to Newcastle for Bracewell and so, sadly, Cunnington didn’t get a chance to work with Peter Reid long term, a manager I think would have got the best out of him.
He went on to play for a number of clubs, but injuries, especially to his ankles, took their toll and he never reached his potential.
Cunnington played in some of the weakest teams I’ve seen us field and was unfairly maligned for much of those three years and since but, as I say, for me he had potential, he gave 100% whatever was going on, never gave up and deserved more credit than he got. He helped drag the club from the post Smith wastelands to the Reid era keeping us out of division three.
Not the best, most talented or loved player but, in a dark time, he was, for me, number one on the team sheet.