In praise of the workhorse
All football supporters warm to the flair player, someone who can turn a game with a breathtaking pass or, better still, a match-winning goal.
Older Sunderland fans still talk of the magical qualities of the late Jim Baxter, who made nearly 100 appearances in the 1960s. Though already in the declining phase of his career, he was so much better than those around him that he remains arguably the most highly skilled player seen in the club's colours since the Second World War, with the exception of Len Shackleton a decade and more before him.
- Randall: Sunderland's end of season report card
But the same thrill-seeking supporters also value the valiant workhorse, the man who may not possess the silkiest of footballing skills but throws himself wholeheartedly into every game, notching up important achievements at either end of the pitch.
Craig Gardner, who departed this week for West Brom after three years on Wearside, was such a player. His rapport with fans was rare in the modern age: singing along, indeed leading the singing, on the train for the 2013 derby match at Newcastle in what will forever be remembered as the Paolo Di Canio season.
Loudly invited by fellow travellers to "give us a song", Gardner -- suspended for the game -- instantly responded with PDC's name set to the tune of that catchy little Verdi number La donna e mobile.
And now he arrives at the Hawthorns with the same hearty display of commitment to WBA as if he had never so much as dreamed of wearing the colours of previous clubs including the Baggies' local rivals Aston Villa and Birmingham City.
"Absolutely buzzing to finally sign for @WBAFCofficial," he tweeted. "Can't wait to get the season under way now #boingboing #buzzing ..."
At Sunderland, Gardner scored a few vital goals, established himself as a cracking penalty-taker -- with the single exception of his part in the penalty shoot-out fiasco at Old Trafford as Sunderland reached the Capital One Cup final -- and was never known to go missing when things were going badly. He was booked and sent off too often and misplaced passed too easily, but gave every match his best shot.
As Gus Poyet reflects on the sort of squad he needs to build on the great escape of the season just ended, he probably agrees with me that keeping or acquiring a few players with Gardner's attitude is as essential as ensuring they are there to support men of uncommon defensive, midfield or attacking quality.
The future of Jack Colback should be an important component of his thinking. Colback gets through a massive amount of work, rarely makes glaring mistakes, is always neat and tidy and even scores the odd goal. He is out of contract and several Premier clubs are said to admire him. Poyet should tell Sunderland's owner, Ellis Short, Colback is worth keeping provided the deal he is asking for is realistic.
But there are other honest toilers he can safely do without. Phil Bardsley made a commendable return from the exclusion into which PDC -- or, to be fair, Bardsley's own off-the-field indiscretions -- forced him, but it probably makes good sense for all concerned that he is now reported to have agreed to join Stoke City. Jozy Altidore, I am sorry to say, is another player whose departure would truly be of little consequence. The same may be said of Steven Fletcher, whose season was dogged by injuries but never looked like matching the previous one even when he was fit.
Question marks hover over other close-season issues: should Seb Larsson be urged to stay because his season, previously so disappointing, ended so well? Is there another solid season left in the old Manchester United warhorses John O'Shea and Wes Brown, each crucial to the storming finale that kept Sunderland up?
Assuming Fabio Borini, my player of the season despite the heroics of Vito Mannone in goal, cannot be rescued permanently from the bench at Anfield, is Emanuele Giaccherini worth hanging onto as a natural replacement? Should Connor Wickham, whose goals were so decisive at the season's end, be tied down now to a prolonged contract? And who, of genuine star quality, can Poyet persuade to make new, albeit temporary, homes on Wearside?
A lot of work must be done this summer and the World Cup may play its part, given Poyet's glowing reputation on the international footballing stage. He is unlikely to be willing to place too much reliance on many of the fringe players currently waiting for their chance of sustained Premier action. And he almost certainly realises that the squad that ended the season at the heady height of 14th needs substantial strengthening if the arrow-dodging of the past few seasons is not to be repeated all over again.