Normally if a club were to sell its captain on the eve of the new football season there would be confusion, chaos and cause for immediate concern, but with George Honeyman and Sunderland that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The Prudhoe-born midfielder completes his switch to Hull City, ending a fourteen year stay on Wearside having grown up through the club’s academy and developmental system; a system responsible for producing the current England captain, Jordan Henderson, and last year’s World Cup goalkeeping hero, Jordan Pickford. But unlike when those two Sunderland born-and-bred talents were sold to either side of Merseyside, for Honeyman there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of mourning from the Sunderland fans at his transfer.
The last few years at Sunderland have been a debacle. A malaise established from the moment Sam Allardyce departed the club having retained their status at footballs top table in 2016 in order to seek his dream of becoming manager of the England national team. His replacement, David Moyes, keen to salvage his reputation in the footballing cosmos after disappointments at Manchester United and Real Sociedad, had potential on paper, but the outcome was far from it. Moyes guided Sunderland to a demoralising, miserable relegation with a number of sub-standard signings including many of his former recruits in Bryan Oviedo, Darron Gibson, Victor Anichebe, Steven Pienaar and an aging Joleon Lescott.
But amongst those redundant signings, Moyes began to look towards the future for Sunderland and its acclaimed academy by introducing the likes of Honeyman and American winger, Lynden Gooch, into the Premier League. For most Sunderland fans this resembled somewhat of a relief, a reprieve from those who had plundered their beloved team into such a precarious position. It was a change from players condemned as materialistic to youngsters who wanted to play in the infamous red and white shirts on Wearside.
The sickness at the club of course ran deeper than David Moyes, with the club’s American tycoon owner, Ellis Short, no longer willing to replenish the gaping holes in the Sunderland squad from his bank account. As Moyes resigned, Sunderland’s quest to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking was left to Simon Grayson and an inadequate £1m transfer kitty. With many fans disillusioned by Moyes’ tenure and relegation, this was seen as yet another laceration to an already eviscerated body.
As a result, the likes of Honeyman and Gooch would become the forefront of Sunderland’s surge back to the Premier League. Home-grown talent who get what it means to play for a club like Sunderland. “You’ve got dreams,” admitted Honeyman on Sunderland’s Netflix documentary [Sunderland ‘til I Die]. “I would absolutely love to play for England and get Sunderland back in the Premiership, they’re all dreams. My aim is just to stay in the team one week at a time.” An admirable and sophisticated outlook.
Unfortunately for Sunderland, and Honeyman, things didn’t work out anywhere near as they would have hoped with a dismal successive relegation from the Championship depositing the club in League One for only the second time in its rich 140-year history, a relegation where Honeyman was one of the primary custodians of blame due to his involvement. But criticism is something which Honeyman has always felt he has had to deal with and overcome even to get to this stage. “I’ve always thought I’ve got to do something that other people don’t do,” he said. “The easiest one for me was just to work harder than everyone else off the field and on the field, whether I fail from that or succeed I’ll always feel like I couldn’t have given much more to it.”
Following another summer of upheaval, both in the boardroom and dressing room, Honeyman became one of the more senior first team professionals heading into last year’s League One campaign, a biography which afforded him the opportunity to be given the captain’s armband from new manager, Jack Ross. "When he asked, I could not say 'yes' quick enough,” he said of his appointment. “To captain this football club is the greatest privilege in the world. I have grown up with this club and it is all I have ever known. When you see everyone involved and connected with the club, you realise that it is more than just that, it is people's livelihoods and that really means something.”
Once again on paper this appointment fit the bill for Sunderland and the supporters, a club circulating the abyss in alarming need for stability, hope and something to latch a hold of. This was the equivalent of one of the 23,000 season ticket holders being given the armband. But failure to secure promotion at the first time of asking, coupled with the burden of being labelled captain has landed Honeyman in yet more murky waters of critique over the past season. The fantasy world of Football Manager games has enabled every fan to become masterful coaches and tacticians and as such, the mystery as to where his ‘best’ position is and what ‘type of player’ he is became a growing downfall. For all the energy, impetus and attitude Honeyman would put in on a Saturday there often lacked guile and a touch of stand-out class.
And yet why should Sunderland fans demand more? After all, they wanted players with heart and passion. Players who would run through brick walls for the club. Players who would consider following in the footsteps of Kevin Ball and Bobby Kerr in captaining this proud club as “the greatest honour in the world” away from the show-ponies who only turned up on Wearside to secure astronomical wages to suit their agenda.
The reality is this ideology of perfectionism in a player is innocent but naïve. For all the tributes in which all three of the north-east’s main footballing pillars are given for that matter, the notion that all these supporters want is a good attitude and work rate is misguided. Of course, that is what football supporters want to see, it is what ignites their individual flames for football in the first place as an attribute many a fan displays themselves in the local park on a Sunday morning. But that should be a given over a necessity. Football fans crave talent. And for whatever reason Honeyman has fallen just short of that pre-requisite it seems.
Honeyman may have been a part of the Sunderland furniture for well over a decade; his journey from boy to man at the same football club a proud one. But ultimately however, Honeyman has featured for Sunderland in the Premier League, the Championship and at League One levels and has failed to cement himself in a role he was nurtured for. The club would no doubt have kept faith in Honeyman for another season; manager Ross already renewing his captaincy. But such is the delicate position of Sunderland in the footballing pyramid at present; Honeyman has become a saleable asset.
For Honeyman himself the move will come with mixed emotions. A move to a higher level suggests his grafting mentality has paid off, but leaving home is never easy. “I’ve been here for more than half my life because I’ve been at the academy for so long, and the club put faith in me,” he said. For the Stadium of Light faithful, while there may not be many happy memories involving Honeyman, the highlight perhaps being his stoppage time winner at Rochdale in April to maintain Sunderland’s automatic promotion push, there a fewer players to have loved the club like him throughout its history.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on however, you get the feeling this is the right time for both parties and that both parties will be able to cope. Where Honeyman is expendable, there is life after Sunderland.