Darren Bent: I celebrated like maniac v Spurs; it was superb at Sunderland
“Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go Stoke NO do I wanna go Sunderland YES so stop f***ing around, Levy. Sunderland are not the problem in the slightest.”
It is now over 11 years since Darren Bent sent that infamous tweet in an attempt to accelerate his Tottenham departure but, while it was swiftly deleted at the time, he’s unlikely to ever be allowed to forget about it. Speaking to us ahead of the return of the EFL on Quest highlights show this Saturday, we know why Bent wanted out of Tottenham, but why was he so sure about Sunderland?
The Black Cats had finished 16th in 2008-09 and only avoided relegation on the final day of the season thanks to Newcastle United’s 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa. Roy Keane had started the season in charge before Ricky Sbragia took over in December. Sunderland scraped to safety despite losing nine of their last 12 league games.
Sbragia promptly resigned after a final day defeat to Chelsea and in came Steve Bruce. It’s safe to say Bruce is, at best, a polarising figure in the North East, but one call from the new manager was all it took to convince Bent he needed to make the Stadium of Light his new home.
“I’m going to ask you one question, do you want to come and play centre-forward for Sunderland?,” Bruce asked Bent. “Listen, I don’t want you to do anything else but score goals. Don’t worry about anything else, just score goals. Once you do that, everything will fall into place.”
Bent is getting increasingly excited recalling the time: “And it did. And it was superb. I created opportunities, I scored goals, I was in the England squads. It was probably the best season I ever had, but that’s because I was happy off the pitch. He was key to that.”
The striker had moved to the North East with his career at something of a crossroads. After honing his craft at Ipswich Town he had taken the Premier League by storm with Charlton, only to struggle for consistency at Tottenham where he was in and out of the starting XI.
He still managed to score 17 goals in all competitions in his second season at Spurs but is best remembered for a miss against Portsmouth after which his manager Harry Redknapp quipped: “My missus could have scored that one.”
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That didn’t stop Sunderland signing Bent in a then-club-record deal worth a potential £16.5million.
“When you talk about transfer fee it didn’t even faze me one bit,” Bent says. “I was just like, ‘I’m here to do a job.’ And I was more determined to show people I could still score goals and I was a good player. The price tag doesn’t come into it. I was fully focussed: I’m scoring goals for Sunderland.
“Because I’d been the main man at Charlton I knew I could score goals in the Premier League and I knew that, given game-time, I’d score. I’d gone to Spurs and I’d been in and out, in and out. In the second season I still managed to score quite a lot of goals, but when you’re in and out it’s difficult. I knew in myself that once I got that opportunity for a run of games I’m going to score.
“Going up to the North East, you know that they’re passionate up there, but you don’t know how passionate until you get up there. When I got off the plane, people are at the airport saying, ‘Darren, can you sign this?’
“The way the people made me feel up there, I knew I was in the right place. I knew for a fact I’d chosen the right destination. I’d been with Frazier Campbell the year before at Tottenham and he was saying to me, ‘Darren, you’re not going to believe it when you get up here. It’s mad.’
“I got up there and I trained and walking around the streets, honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just, wow, crazy.”
For a player who scored so many of his goals by being in the right place at the right time, the same sentiment now applied to his career once more, and the goals swiftly followed.
He opened his account on his debut by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win at Bolton and embarked on a run of eight goals in his first nine appearances.
“Coming out at the Stadium of Light and the supporters being there singing your name – honestly, it was a real surreal experience,” he says. “You feed off the fans’ energy. Anyone who’s been a fans’ favourite or a top player at a club while they’re constantly singing your name, it’s like you’re flying.
“They will carry you through; if you’re a bit tired you’ll run that extra yard, you’ll jump that little bit higher, you’ll throw yourself in there even if you’re going to get hurt because you think, ‘You know what, these guys want me to do it so I’m going to do it for them.’
“It was an unbelievable time and a really good experience for me up there.”
The final strike in that early run of goals came courtesy of *that* beach ball goal against Liverpool, but the surrealism of that game paled into insignificance when Bent came up against his former club Tottenham later on in the season.
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Bent had missed a penalty upon his return to White Hart Lane in November 2009 but opened the scoring after just 34 seconds at the Stadium of Light and had a brace before the half-hour mark after converting from the spot, only to miss two more penalties in Sunderland’s 3-1 victory.
“It was early on, so I had the rest of the game to get three or four,” he says, “but I missed the next two penalties, which was gutting.
“That was a game where I really felt like the crowd were feeding off my energy. I was so pumped up before the game and wanted to do well against Spurs. They could sense that, so when I scored after about 45 seconds, I celebrated like a maniac and they celebrated like maniacs too.
“The crowd was so electric that day. I scored again, and funnily enough I scored at the end where the Spurs fans were. I was celebrating down that end like an absolute maniac.
“That was the relationship I had with the Sunderland supporters. It was superb. I can’t thank them enough for my time up there.”
Come the end of the season, Bent had scored 25 goals in all competitions, the best return of his career. He was the only striker to score 20 or more goals in Europe’s major leagues not to be taken to the 2010 World Cup.
Eleven goals in all competitions followed during the first half of the following season before Sunderland cashed in by selling the player to Aston Villa in a deal worth £24million.
It became an acrimonious exit as Bent was told by Sunderland that the transfer wouldn’t be signed off unless he handed in a transfer request, but his fondness for the club, the city and the fans remains.
“Scoring goals in the North East is like nothing else. I was fortunate enough to win the Football Writers’ North East Player of the Year. Honestly, it’s an achievement I’m so proud of because at that stage of my career I needed to be away from London. I needed to go somewhere else and focus.
“Yeah, it would have been nicer to be close to my family, but I just thought, ‘Listen, if my family want to come and see me they’ll come up there.’ Everything was just all about football.
“It’s no coincidence that it was the best season of my career.”
By Rob Conlon