Milton Núñez joined Sunderland for £1.6m on deadline day in 2000 but made just one league appearance. Timothy Abraham tracked him down in Guatemala, where he is still playing, to unravel the mystery of a transfer which turned him into a cult hero on Wearside

FOOTBALL supporters just love a good conspiracy theory. Depending on who you speak to on the terraces at the Stadium of Light you will get a colourful version on how Sunderland ended up signing Milton Núñez.

Peter Reid, the then manager, bought him off the back of a couple of grainy VHS tapes goes one version. A scouting trip to watch the diminutive Honduran which turned into a boozy jolly is another.

The most popular adaptation was that the Black Cats actually signed the wrong player.

They wanted to land, the legend goes, Colombia striker Adolfo Valencia from Greek side PAOK where Núñez was on loan.

A broad grin crosses Núñez’s face as he shields his eyes from the late morning sun outside the rundown changing rooms of the Estadio Revolución, the home of his current club Universidad de San Carlos, in a leafy suburb away from the smog of downtown Guatemala City.

“Really?” he laughs. “People are actually believing these things?”

The waters on Wearside may have been muddied but Núñez’s mind remains crystal clear as he ponders the stories concerning his transfer in March 2000.

“I was absolutely 100 per cent the player Sunderland wanted to sign,” Núñez insists. “For a start Adolfo was about 6ft tall! I am, well, quite a lot shorter than that. He was also a very different style of player to me.

“There is no doubt in my mind that I was the one they wanted to bring in.”

Núñez’s big smile and pint-sized stature quickly made an impression on Sunderland’s supporters when he was unveiled with a lap of the pitch at half-time in a 2-1 home win over Everton.

Given the nickname ‘Tyson’ by a team-mate earlier in his career, because of his resemblance to boxer Iron Mike, he also obligingly held his fists up for the cameras at the Stadium of Light.

“I didn’t like the nickname back then but these days I’m ok with it,” Núñez says as he willingly adopts a puncher’s stance 16 years later.

“I do remember Mickey Gray saying 'we were waiting for Tyson! The real Mike Tyson. But you are tiny’ and I just laughed.”

Two weeks after Núñez’s arrival he made his first, and ultimately only, Premiership appearance in a 2-1 victory over Wimbledon.

“I remember I came on for Mickey in the 75th minute,” Núñez says, unable to recall that the baggy red-and-white striped shirt he wore that day appeared a couple of sizes too big for his slender frame.

“I was the first Honduran to play in Premiership – it was a very proud moment for me.”

A collective gasp from the 40,510 in the ground that day as he sprung, jack-in-the-box like, for a header remains the abiding memory.

Apart from an unremarkable 29 minutes as a second-half replacement for Michael Reddy in the second leg of a Worthington Cup tie against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road, which Sunderland were leading 5-0 when he came on, Núñez was never seen in a competitive first-team match again.

While Núñez debunks the myths around his arrival on Wearside another, concerning the colour of his skin, proves more difficult.

Núñez became the only black player in Sunderland’s first-team and up to that point they were the only side in the English top-flight without a black or mixed race player in their senior squad.

Does Núñez think his skin colour held him back? “Some people say there was an issue with racism at that time,” he explains.

“I never ever suffered anything directly. Institutionally? Maybe (there is) some truth in that. I don’t know. People can say that me saying that is true, or they can say it is lies.

“It does not change my view of Sunderland, though. I loved my time there with the fans, coaches, and team-mates even though I hardly played a game.”

Racism has been an issue for Núñez playing in Guatemala; his response to monkey chants from fans was to strip down to his underwear during a game.

“I had to make a statement to those idiots,” he says. “Maybe nobody had the guts to do that. I think things have improved since.”

Núñez was born in a village in Honduras called Sambo Creek. His father, who worked as a bricklayer, died of throat cancer when he was ten years old.

With four siblings, Núñez was forced to grow up quickly and spent his early years selling coconut bread, made by his mother, on the streets to help make ends meet in between kickabouts in his bare feet.

He overcame concerns over his height – officially he is listed as 5ft 5in - to establish himself as a professional in Honduras and Guatemala before a breakthrough move to Nacional of Uruguay. From there he was loaned to PAOK before being scouted as the man to compliment Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn.

Although the transfer itself became a mess, Sunderland claim they were duped by Núñez’s agent Pablo Betancourt with the player’s registration actually held by a Uruguayan third division club. Sunderland took legal action and eventually the matter was settled out of court. It all added to the air of mystery about his time on Wearside.

In the training match organised by Universidad’s Argentine coach, Núñez hints at the kind player Sunderland fans only saw so fleetingly.

At 43 his knees might be creaking but he shows technical qualities so abundantly missing in his Guatemalan team-mates; a drop of the shoulder here, a feint there, an instinctive touch to open up the defence.

His was a game based around guile and inventiveness perhaps not suited to the up-and-at-em style Reid had engendered. Motivation rather than sophistication was Reid’s mantra.

“He (Reid) paid a lot of money for me,” Nunez says. “But when I got there he told me that English football is strong and full of big guys. I told him 'man, I'm the small one. You have seen me play’.

“I think it was bad to speak him like that near the start, but I was angry and then I got a bit depressed.”

Núñez brought his young family to Sunderland, attempted to integrate himself in the North-East. He learned English, sampled the fish and chips, and took part in team bonding exercises including a pre-season cricket match.

But there were certain aspects of the club the devout Christian could not adjust to at the time.

“It’s true there was a drink culture at the club in those days,” Núñez claimed. “That was weird for someone from Honduras. Every player was drinking. I didn't drink.”

In June 2001 – 447 days into a four-year deal – Núñez’s contract was terminated and he was released.

“I had no idea Sunderland fans still think about me,” Núñez adds. “I guess it’s better to be remembered, even if I only played a couple of times, than not at all.”

Timothy Abraham is a freelance journalist co-writing a book about the history of cricket in Latin America. He can be found on Twitter @TimothyAbraham. Additional reporting and translating by Richie Cobar Susbielles.