Cult Heroes: Stephen 'Sleeves' Elliott
Martin O'Neill, Lee Cattermole, and now Simon Mignolet. Any more? I'm counting the people who are still going into the remaining games with purpose. You can add us, too. We think it's time to move on from what could have been a Wembley day out, but it wasn't to be.
Hopefully, Tuesday night has left the minds and hearts and we can look forward to this weekend's game with Manchester City, and what better way than a bit of Cult Heroes?
This week we're looking at a former City Academy graduate, who helped ignite our 04-05 promotion push. Ladies and gentleman, Stephen 'Sleeves' Elliott...
Arriving from Manchester City's reserve side, Stephen Elliott had an air about him akin to the new kid at school. But he was not alone. Having missed out on promotion courtesy of play-off heartache at home to Crystal Palace, Mick McCarthy sought to galvanise his side with youth, and Elliott was the one that chief scout Dave Bowman ‘hung his hat on'.
‘Sleeves', as he was affectionately known for his penchant for the phrase ‘sleeves up' [meaning ‘are you serious' -- I think], made two senior appearances for City before joining for an initial fee of £125,000 which was set by tribunal. His Sunderland debut came in a 2-0 defeat away to Coventry City - Peter Reid overcoming his former side to record an opening day win for the Sky Blues. Despite that, he scored his first goal for the club just three days later; wrapping up a 3-1 home win over Crewe Alexandra with a neat finish. It was to be the first of 15 goals that season that would go some way to securing promotion back to the top-flight.
In addition to goals, what Elliott brought to Sunderland in that promotion-winning season was a change of pace. Tommy Smith and Darren Byfield had been moved on after the play-off defeat, leaving McCarthy's preferred partnership - Marcus Stewart and Kevin Kyle - intact. Initially, Elliott was brought off the bench to run defenders tired of having to ‘battle' Kyle for the best part of an hour ragged, but his quality meant that a starting place was not too far away. Some of the more memorable goals that year came from him - the back-heeled finish at home to Ipswich on Sky, and the back-to-goal-turn-and-volley against, umm, well the finish was memorable at least.
Having sealed the Championship title with a winning goal against West Ham at Upton Park, there was tangible hope that Elliott could mark on the Premier League, but injury struck again - resulting in the Irishman featuring just 15 times as his side were relegated with the same number of points (instant apology from me for that sharp, screeching pain in the side of your head as you read this!). His two goals that season (curling efforts against Manchester United, and Newcastle United at St. James' Park) were of the highest calibre, however; which only intensified the frustration that he could not stay fit.
There was somewhat of a renaissance under Roy Keane, which lead the then Sunderland manager to claim that Elliott ‘could even play in goal and he would still score' after a brace against Colchester United in which the Irish striker started on the right-hand-side of midfield. Unfortunately, another injury was not too far away and ‘Sleeves' joined Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer of 2007 to be reunited with Mick Mac. During his time with the Lads, Elliott scored 22 goals in 81 league games, but injuries cruelly prevented him for replicating his first season form.
Since, Elliott's luck with injuries has got a little better. Despite being sold to Preston North End by McCarthy - and then being loaned to Norwich City by his new club - Elliott has surpassed the 50 appearances landmark at a club for just the second time in his career at Hearts, where he has been playing for the past two seasons. That statistic is, sadly, Stephen Elliott in a nutshell but it is great to see his resilience being rewarded with regular football.
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