LISTENING to The Anfield Wrap a couple of weeks ago I was surprised by the willingness in some quarters to write off Fabio Borini’s coming of age season at Sunderland.
A coming of age season for a forward player who has scored six goals for a side who have practically lived in the relegation zone since August? Hear me out.
If there is one moment that encapsulates this then it is standing atop the advertising boards at St. James’ Park, saluting the Newcastle fans after giving Sunderland the lead in their February derby. Footballers, especially the younger sort, are often said not to understand or appreciate the rivalries in English football. Here Borini offered a full-blooded two-fingers to that outdated, almost offensive train of thought.
The celebration that followed his penalty, the opening goal of a 3-0 win, was at worst irresponsible, but at best a real indicator of the fiery passion that lies underneath his oft-perceived soft outer layer. Evidence of this steely underbelly, this inner-resolve, was in scant evidence during his debut season on Merseyside. An injury-ravaged season it may have been, but that just added fuel to the belief that the Italian international was simply not up to the task.
Joining Paolo di Canio’s Sunderland felt like another wrong move in Borini’s thus far disjointed career, but his development in Gus Poyet’s Sunderland has been more than Liverpool fans could have dreamt for during those dark autumn days in the north east. There was real potential that the mass upheaval there could be the straw to break the camel’s back of an already outrageously nomadic career for a 22-year-old.
Before his stunning winner in the Tyne-Wear derby in October there was an overwhelming sense that this would prove to be another wasted season for the young Italian. A transfer deadline day move in September to become one of 14 new arrivals at Di Canio’s Black Cats was met with trepidation rather than excitement.
Sunderland were rooted to the bottom of the table and, as defeats to Fulham and Crystal Palace indicated, looked well short of being competitive in the Premier League. Seven defeats in their first eight confirmed the early fears, but Di Canio’s bizarre post-match stand-off with the travelling Mackems after a 3-0 thumping at West Brom, which prompted his sacking, at least spared Borini a torturous, drawn-out saga.
In the first Tyne-Wear derby of the season, Borini trotted onto the pitch midway through the second half to little fanfare. The clocks had gone back, and the Italian had clocked up only 108 minutes of league football during the mass upheaval that engulfed the club’s autumn. Sunderland looked doomed; a Championship side-in-waiting.
With five minutes of the derby remaining, the Mackems looked sure to enter November still searching for an elusive league victory. But then the goal. And what a goal. It’s almost classic Borini in its inception, darting off-the-ball movement as he swipes the ball off a heavy touch from Jozy Alitdore before releasing a thunderous right-footed cannon, something few associate with the Italian, into the top-corner of Tim Krul’s goal. A goal fit to win any game; that it graced a derby is all the sweeter.
Who knows without Borini’s single-handed intervention in that derby, where their league campaign would have drifted. To grant him a messianic status would be fallacious, for Sunderland won just one of their next eight league games immediately after that.
Instead Borini’s success has been intermittent, and yet more often than not it has come in the games where the fans have wanted it most. How Sunderland do against relegation rivals will determine their fate come May, and none of the Italian’s goals have come in that mini league. The fans will not look to that as a barometer of his impact when he departs.
Instead, it’s the two derby goals against the Geordies. It’s a late Capital One Cup equaliser against Chelsea, a quarter final that they go on to win. It’s a winning penalty in the first leg of the semi-final against Manchester United, and the opening goal against Manchester City at Wembley which dared their delirious supporters to dream.
Sometimes it feels like polishing a turd when you argue the inarguable, but Fabio Borini has taken big strides at Sunderland. To even be a settled part of a side with a lot to fight for, a side who have enjoyed two profitable cup runs, is significant given the nature of his career thus far. Having never spent longer than a year in one place during his professional career, it seems foolish to write him off without affording him at least a second season at Anfield.
He’s unlikely to become the focal point of Brendan Rodgers’ attack, but he is more than good enough as a third or fourth choice forward for a Champions League team. He may only ever fulfil his potential if he is allowed to be that main player, he may be the type of player who cannot contribute sporadically if he is not playing regularly.
But to anyone who says that Fabio Borini simply isn’t good enough to be that option for Liverpool, point to that celebration at St. James’ Park. Point to that celebration and tell me he lacks the hunger to prove himself at Anfield. Point to those goals against Chelsea, Newcastle, Manchester City and Manchester United and tell me he isn’t worth persevering with.
Pics: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda