Choosing your favourite player is an impossibility, in the same way that choosing your team is an impossibility. You don’t choose them, they just happen. Sure, you can pick your favourite from a list of choices presented by someone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that player will be your real favourite. They might not even have been the best player you’ve seen in their position, but they did something that caught your fancy. It could be something as apparently insignificant as giving an autograph or shepherding you off the pitch when you shouldn’t have run on during the game anyway, never mind the more regular things like scoring a buck snorter against a team you don’t particularly like. Obviously, your favourite may change over time as new players come along and usurp a previous favourite – that’s only natural.
I only saw Charlie Hurley play a handful of times because I simply wasn’t old enough to do otherwise, but he was my first favourite. Then there was a brief flirtation with Colin Todd – enough to convince me that, despite having no defensive capabilities whatsoever, half-back was my natural position. By the time we’d taken the money and he’d nicked off to Derby, I’d worked out that my footballing future lay further up the field, where running very fast in a straight line was more use to King James I school. However, my new favourite was another defender. He was also something of a novelty, in that I didn’t know of any other players who shared his first name. He was exciting because, despite being a full-back, he’d bomb down the side-line at Roker at every opportunity before belting a cross into the middle. He was almost certainly the English game’s first overlapping fullback, he was called Cec Irwin, and I screamed “ha’way, Cec!” at every opportunity from the Fulwell. Of course, our relative ages meant that the beginning of my supporting career coincided with the end of his playing career, and our time together was only marginally longer than Sobs Loves Toddo, before he ended his fourteen-year stay at Roker and became player/manager at Yeovil.
Fortunately, Monty had been present through all of my early days, so he was a natural successor. Winning at Wembley a couple of years later helped as well, and he’s still my favourite ‘keeper, but you need to fast forward another couple of years to find my all-time favourite. I was of an age when my contemporaries were breaking into the first team, and it took a late substitute appearance in a 1-0 win over Oxford in December 1975 for my all-time fave to make his debut. Five months later, we were drawing at Hull thanks to Pop Robson, when the first goal was struck. Gary Rowell, in only his second start, hit what can best be described as a hopeful low shot from the edge of the box on forty minutes, and former Darlo keeper Jeff Wealands somehow dived over it.
Little did we know there’d be another 102 goals, mostly of a more clinical nature than that ground-breaker, but it was the beginning of something beautiful. As part of the Three Amigos alongside Shaun Elliott and Kevin Arnott, he really established himself when thrown in at the deep end of our ultimately unsuccessful fight against the drop in 1977. As a local lad of the same age as myself, he was quickly a hero of mine, doing everything that I would have done, had it not been for the unfortunate ankle injury and almost complete lack of ability and application on my part. What he did in February 1979 at Sid James Park, though, cemented his place in many a thousand Wearside hearts. A local Lad who’d been to the FA Cup final as a fan, scoring a hat-trick against them up the road on their own patch, then coming up with the timeless quote: “When we hit the fourth I had a chat with Kevin Arnott about whether to try for a fifth or just to take the piss. We decided to take the piss”. What more could he do? Well, help us win that League Cup game at the same venue on my birthday early the next season would do for starters, and then just keep scoring goals. He was one of us, an ordinary County Durham lad, and he was living the dream that we’d all have loved to have been living.
Over his Sunderland career, as a midfielder with a knack of arriving in the box at exactly the right time, he racked up 103 goals despite missing almost a year with a knee injury. He took 26 penalties, putting 25 away, scored another hat-trick – against Arsenal – and was only booked 15 times in 297 appearances ‘cos he’s nice like that. But for that knee injury, in a game against Orient - ironically the opposition to his only unsuccessful spot-kick - when he’d already scored the winning goal, what might have been? Another five years, another hundred goals?
Unfortunately, our manager Len Ashurst reckoned Rowell was finished thanks to the injury, so we’ll never know if that was true as the player was shipped off to Norwich in the summer of 1984, where he promptly picked up an injury and thus played only half a dozen times, scoring once. That meant he got to carry the League Cup as an injured Canary in 1985, bringing the trophy across to our part of the ground. Subsequently at Boro, Brighton, Carlisle, and Burnley, he added only a dozen or so goals before hanging up his boots in 1989. A lifetime has passed since I last saw him play, and other great – arguably better – players have come and gone since then, but he’s still my favourite and I suspect he’ll not be replaced now. I expect that I’m far from the only Sunderland supporter for whom Gary holds that position – the clue’s in the fact that he almost stopped the game when he was recognised amongst the away fans at Tranmere in 1996, and, over 34 years after he last kicked a ball for us, we still regularly remind the world whose world it is that we live in. Not even Charlie Hurley is afforded that honour.