By Jason McKeown
The memories are far from flattering. “One of the worst Sunderland players I have ever seen, and that’s saying something,” wrote one supporter on Twitter. “A heart the size of a pea”, “I’d boo him if he ever came back with an opposing team”, “I hated him”.
It is fair to say that Jon Stead is not well thought of by his former club Sunderland.
Stead was a £1.8 million signing for the Black Cats in 2005. Sunderland had just returned to the Premier League, but with a tiny transfer budget manager Mick McCarthy’s summer shopping was limited to the discount aisle. Stead, who had scored eight goals in 32 starts for Blackburn Rovers, fitted the bill. “He has scored goals in the Premier League, so he’s a great signing for us” declared McCarthy at the time, pleased to have beaten Charlton Athletic to his signature. “I’m finally putting on the red and white after wearing blue and white, so I’m delighted and looking forward to it,” added Stead.
The stats said it all. 35 games in that red and white shirt, just two goals for Stead. Only one of them occurred in the Premier League, when Sunderland drew 2-2 with Everton at Goodison Park. Stead was a major disappointment at Sunderland. Although it must be highlighted that Sunderland themselves were going through a torrid time. Woefully under-prepared for the Premier League, the Mackems finished bottom with just three wins and 19 points. In total they scored a measly 26 goals over the 38 matches.
Yet for Stead, a career that had begun in the fourth tier with Huddersfield, and which had blossomed with a decent spell at Ewood Park, was about to enter a downwards spiral. Stead would ultimately be sold to Sheffield United for a cut-price £750k, two years later. It gave him another shot of the Premier League, where he fared much better (five goals in 14). But his career has drifted downwards since. And a loan move to Oldham, early last season, saw Stead playing outside the top two divisions for the first time since his Huddersfield breakthrough.
Flash forward to January this year, and Stead is the man of the moment. The talk of the national and international media. He has just delivered an extraordinary performance for Bradford City; he is the man of the match for a team that, to a man, will never play better in their lives. The cream of the crop.
At 2-0 down to Premier League Chelsea, the Bantams looked down on their luck and ripe for a hiding. But then Stead netted a wonderful goal just before half time, and everything changed. The rest is glorious, glorious history.
The game back at 2-2, it was the intelligent hold-up play and vision of Stead that laid on City’s third and fourth goals, for Andy Halliday and Mark Yeates respectively. The quality of the football in the build up to these goals surprised everyone. Stead was at the hub of everything brilliant about brilliant Bradford City. He looked every inch the higher league player he once was. So much so that Jose Mourinho dropped the centre half that Stead bullied, Gary Cahill, for Chelsea’s next two games. Cahill is a first choice England centre half no less, but was seriously embarrassed by a player who it appeared wasn’t cut out for top flight football.
As Match of the Day enjoyed a 10-year spike in viewers that evening, it would have been interesting to swap a penny for the thoughts of Stead from the supporters of his parent club, Huddersfield, and that of his other former clubs, like Sunderland. Stead certainly didn’t show that type of form on Wearside. At Sunderland, he never looked capable of out-smarting the best team in the country. So where did this performance come from?
Stead will surely go into Sunday’s match against his former club feeling he has a point to prove. And he goes into this FA Cup fifth round clash with confidence at sky-high levels.
The Chelsea game was no fluke, it was the tip of the iceberg in how he has been performing since re-joining the Bantams last October. 20 starts and seven goals, including netting in every round of the FA Cup. Stead’s all round game has been mightily impressive.
He leads the line with courage and intelligence. He combines power with creativity. He will win the ball in the air and keep it glued to his feet. He is some player to have at this level, but his upturn is far more than benefiting from a drop down to less challenging surroundings. Stead has re-found his mojo, and the way he has played at Valley Parade would suggest he can still perform in the Championship.
Stead has the experience to not be overawed by the excitement of this weekend’s game. With City having a number of excellent ball-players to surround him (including fellow ex-Sunderland man Billy Knott), expect Stead to be the focal point of home attacks. To be the man that Gus Poyet talks about in the away dressing room before the game. He is City’s most likely match winner and certainly their most influential player. His performance against the MK Dons on Monday night was sensational.
The FA Cup is all about romance and stories like this. It’s about Filipe Morais returning to Stamford Bridge and scoring against the club and manager who overlooked him. Jon Stead was behind all the headlines of round four, and he can dominate them this weekend. He has the skill and ability, and he has the confidence and form to match it. His time at the top might be long over, but as a footballer he is far from finished.
It’s time for Stead to show Sunderland fans just what they missed.