Danny Graham has not even signed for Sunderland and already he is on the back foot with his fans. Stuart Rayner asks how big a problem it is for a boyhood Newcastle United fan to play for their rivals
IT ISN’T quite up there with Lee Clark’s infamous T-shirt, but Danny Graham has not even joined Sunderland and already disparaging comments he made about the club are doing the rounds.
A couple of light-hearted remarks to a Newcastle United fanzine were probably just a bit of fun, but if the Black Cats succeed in making the Gateshead-born striker do something he said he never would and join them, he will have some ground to make up with his new supporters.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the long memory of a reader who does not throw his back-copies away, Exhibit A is available to read at a computer screen near you.
They are hardly the most explosive quotes ever, but if he does join from Swansea City, Graham would be well advised to start preparing his defence pretty quickly.
As Clark and others will vouch, being a Magpies fan playing for Sunderland can sometimes be awkward. There are enough others, though, who will point out it is not an insurmountable hurdle.
Right now, the transfer is far from certain to go ahead. Swansea are keen to sell but have bigger fish to fry with a League Cup semi-final second leg next week and replacements they want to sign first.
Sunderland and Norwich City have both made bids, but the Canaries’ opening gambit is thought to be bigger. That the Black Cats have mothballed Frazier Campbell’s proposed move to Cardiff City after accepting an offer suggests they are not confident of bringing Graham or any other striker in any time soon.
Manager Martin O’Neill was understandably anxious not to discuss Graham, or any other transfer target, in the build-up to this afternoon’s Premier League trip to Wigan Athletic, saying: “Talking about other players is not something I would generally do. We will try get some players in if we can.”
But he was prepared to expound his views on the talking point his interest has thrown up, that of players wearing the shirts they grew up detesting.
The list of players who have supported one of the North East’s Big Two but played for the other is a surprisingly long one. Steve Bruce and Bob Stokoe have both managed Sunderland – with varying degrees of success – despite well-known affinities for The Other Lot.
If the pair were treated with a degree of suspicion when they first arrived on Wearside, it is not a problem O’Neill had to worry about.
He was greeted like a Messiah when he pitched up as the new manager in December 2011. An impressive cv helped, but his well-known fondness for the club was probably as significant.
As someone who has been uncomfortable playing up his Sunderland links – at least since he joined their payroll – it is no surprise to hear O’Neill downplay the significance of another Newcastle fan joining. “You can grow up supporting a team, that’s the nature of it,” argues O’Neill. “But when you become a professional player that is your job, to play the best for your team.
“There is a statue outside the ground here to a Geordie. It can’t be bad.
“If you can do something for the football club I think the fans are willing to forgive and forget.”
That, in a nutshell is it.
Your background will affect the footing you start on, but where you go from there is entirely down to you. Football fans will forgive any sin – even crime – from a player (or manager) who consistently delivers the goods.
“He’s one of our own!” Sunderland’s fans sang when Michael Chopra hit the back of the net in his first competitive two games in red-and-white.
Dennis Tueart is a club legend thanks to his part in the 1973 FA Cup win. For masterminding it, Stokoe’s statue stands outside the Stadium of Light. Do badly, and the “G” word will never be far away, as Bruce is never shy of pointing out.
O’Neill simply cannot afford for Graham to be put off by thoughts of the welcoming party he will or will not receive on Wearside.
The 27-year-old is a rare commodity, perhaps a unique one in this transfer window – a proven Premier League goalscorer within Sunderland’s price range.
They managed to find one in August with great success, but O’Neill knows they can ill afford to put so much pressure on one man’s shoulders.
“Steven Fletcher’s been very important to us,” he reflects. “I want us to be less reliant on him.
“At this moment we do rely on him quite a bit, not just for getting a goal or two, but also to play that centre-forward role, hold the ball up and be able to bring other people into the game.
“I just want us over the course of time to be less reliant on that because we’re going to miss him for chunks of any particular season.”
To find another British player they can depend on for goals sounds too good to be true.
The price comes from Graham’s excess baggage. It is nothing a few goals cannot see to.