FULLY aware of the flak he is likely to face at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, Darren Bent has moved to pour oil on troubled waters.
Sunderland’s former record signing today claimed his £24m move in the January transfer window was purely a footballing rather than a financial decision.
And he says he will never forget the good times he had during a 16 month spell on Wearside in which he developed special bonds with the supporters.
But that is unlikely to cut much ice with Black Cats fans who saw him swap upwardly mobile Sunderland in mid-season for a lucrative move to a troubled Villa side hovering just above the relegation zone.
His 32 Premier League goals in 58 games had made him a hero to Sunderland fans, who were elevating him to the same status as a Gary Rowell or a Kevin Phillips.
But his great work had barely begun before he was off to Villa, leaving the club in the lurch and the fans feeling badly let down.
Crucially, the fact that he had made much of his love for Sunderland Football club and its fans, and had been speaking only months earlier about wanting to stay at the Stadium of Light for the rest of his career and become a Sunderland legend, only served to intensify the sense of disgust and betrayal expressed by the fans.
Bent, though, hopes fans will believe he is sincere when he says he retains his affection for Sunderland and left only to further his career rather than his bank balance.
“Every single moment of my time at Sunderland was fantastic,” he said.
“The way it came to an end was really disappointing because I felt like all the good work I did went out of the window, but I will always look back on it with very fond memories, regardless of the reception I get at the weekend.
“I will not celebrate if I score, there won’t be any badge-kissing or anything like that, because I had such good times up there. I have huge respect for the people at Sunderland and what they did for me. I owe that respect to the stadium.
“I was delighted with life up there, I was settled and happy. I met good people and I made firm friends. It’s a lovely place to live.
“When other people ask me about it, I always tell them that if they get a chance to play in the North East they should take it, because the fans are brilliant, everything revolves around football.
“Leaving was nothing to do with that.
“It was the opportunity for me to play for Aston Villa and I’m back close to home and my family. It gave Sunderland a lot of money, so it was a good deal for both parties.
“It may sound strange, but I take heart from knowing it’s because I had such a strong relationship with the supporters that they were so angry when I left. I know they cared for me and I know they treated me as if I was one of their own, and I felt like one, so I can understand why it looked like a betrayal. But in my eyes it wasn’t.
“A player’s career is short and sometimes you have to take a decision.
“Sometimes it’s not a popular decision but it was a football decision, one I realise fans can’t take when it comes to who they support. So it hurt them. But it was nothing to do with money or greed — it was purely a football decision.
“There was an offer of £24m from Villa, there were already several England internationals in the squad and I thought it was a chance to build up a rapport and get into the England squad and then stay there.