Roker Report had the pleasure of chatting with ex-SAFC legend Mickey Gray ahead of this weekends Wear-Tyne derby match. We covered SAFC, the Peter Reid days, his own derby memories, and got predictions for Sunday's big match...
Starting off with SAFC in general, how do you think the seasons going? Have we gone beyond your expectation like everyone else?
Mickey: Well you’ve got to look at it that way. At the beginning of the season if you’d said Top 10, everyone would have been very happy, I think because of the run we’ve been on, and the home form throughout the season, everybody’s expectations have risen, and dare I say it now, we’re talking about qualifying for Europe. We’ve been in that position before, but I think this time with the squad and the strength in depth this time around could see them over the finishing line. Also, I don’t think there’s anyone below them who’s better or capable of catching them.
As you’ve touched on, we’ve been in that position before and you were there at the time. What mistakes were made then which meant we didn’t kick on?
Mickey: I think we got to the January transfer window and didn’t strengthen the squad when we needed to. The squad Peter Reid had wasn’t as strong as what they have now. We had a strong eleven, and maybe one or two that could come into the side, but beyond that it was mainly kids and fringe players who didn’t have enough to cut it in the Premier League week in, week out.
It doesn’t look like we’ll be making that mistake again with Bruce looking at players like Muntari & Sessegnon. Do you think the likes of those will be good additions?
Mickey: Yeah, any additions like that are big names in the game, and that’s what we’ve got to be looking for. As I said, the squad looks strong at the minute, and the only way to improve that is with well known players, who can come into the side without weakening it. It’s about strengthening in the right areas; I definitely think on the flanks we need someone there.
Muntari could do a job; he’s a fantastic player, done it in the Premiership, and good enough for Mourinho to buy him at Inter. I also thought David Bentley could be one, but unfortunately he’s gone to Birmingham. I was with him at Blackburn and I know what he can do. His delivery into the box is as good as, dare I say it, Beckham or Summerbee from the right hand side, and he’s certainly up there.
I’m sure Brucey knows more than me though, and he’ll be searching all over the world for talented players, and whoever he brings in will be the right people.
Another thing I was interested in was your conversion from the left of midfield to left-back is similar to what Bruce is trying with Kieran Richardson, who doesn’t seem to be adapting as quickly as you did. Do you think he’s got the right qualities and ability to make the change?
Mickey: Oh definitely yeah. He started at Manchester United and has a lot of talent and quality and the way he plays is very direct. I think one of my biggest assets was going forward, and my energy and I think Kieran’s got that as well. A bit like myself, not the best defensive player, but if you can get their wide player chasing you the other way, it gives the team a lot more options on the ball, that was always my mindset. Settling in at left-back was never a problem for me, and suited me down to the ground really because of the way I played, and I could show my energy playing on the flank.
Well that’s just it, we saw you over-lapping a lot with Allan Johnston. With a new left-sided midfielder and Richardson at left-back do you think we could see that sort of play again?
Mickey: Well that’s if Kieran does stay there, Phil Bardsley came in and has been outstanding, possibly the player of the season so far. You’ve got to have a wide player like Johnston though to get Kieran over-lapping, someone who knows when the fullback has overlapped and will be able to slot in and cover at fullback when need be.
The two that have been linked, Sessegnon & Muntari, either one of them could come in and do a job straight away on that side of the pitch, I think.
Moving on to the derby on Sunday, are you nervous?
Mickey: I’m more nervous going into this one than I was the one at St James Park, I was really optimistic we could go there and get a result, but it just goes to show you never can tell what’s going to happen on derby day.
This time around I’ve got a sneaky feeling inside me that Sunderland’s got that ‘wounded animal’ mentality, and they need to go and prove themselves with a bit of fight and a bit of passion. If we get that, I can’t see us losing the game, no matter what side Newcastle put out. I hope that sort of result would spur us on for the rest of the season. Obviously at St James’ Park we got a drubbing 5-1, and after that we went on a fantastic run, like there was a point to prove, but getting a result in front of the home fans though can really drive you on.
You touched on the 5-1 there, and it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise because it gave them a kick up the arse and we’ve kicked on well since then don’t you think?
Mickey: Well nobody wants Newcastle coming to the Stadium of Light and winning 5-1 just so we can kick on again, but it has certainly spurred us on to better things, the game against Chelsea for example.
Sometimes though that kick up the backside when you didn’t see it coming, that can inspire the players to take it to the next level, and hopefully that 5-1 horror show at St James’ Park is the last one we get this season.
We’ve been playing great football, and if we can keep doing that we can keep driving on up the table.
It’s going to be like a 12th man on Sunday, an extra 46,000 people with the same desire as those on the pitch?
Mickey: In a derby game, you’re never going to be able to command the game for 90 minutes, it’s impossible. Sunderland are probably going to have the majority of the game with it being at home, but when there’s a spell of Newcastle being on top, it might only be for five minutes, that’s when you need that 12th man behind you, and the fans singing from start to finish should help them over the line.
Back in the day, you were the ‘fan on the pitch’ and now Jordan Henderson has that honour, how will he feel going into Sunday?
Mickey: I didn’t think Jordan had the best of games at Newcastle, I’m not sure if perhaps the occasion got to him that day. If you take that game out of his full season though I think he’s been outstanding. He’s represented his country this season, which is a credit to him at such a young age. I’ve met him a few times and he’s a very level-headed boy, a superb professional and a credit to the club.
He’ll be trying to put that result right, so it goes down in the record book when he does finish playing football. He can look back and say "I played Newcastle 7, 8, 9 times, and I beat them 6, 7, 8 times" that’s the kind of things he’s got to try and do. He’ll be looking to do that, and wouldn’t it be nice if he could top it all off, as a local lad, with the winning goal?
Looking back at your games against Newcastle, what was your personal highlight? One of the 2-1’s, was scoring in the 1-1 draw, or something else perhaps?
Mickey: The one where I scored and it was 1-1 was really strange because it was the first derby with no away fans, so I’m looking round for where to celebrate scoring the opening goal, and all there is my teammates. Obviously there were one or two scattered fans who weren’t supposed to be there, but it was an amazing feeling for me, and something very special.
You can’t get away from the 2-1 results though; they were just out of this world. The atmosphere and the build-up to both games was just incredible, because we hadn’t played them for a few years, and the performance in both games just showed everything that Sunderland and Sunderland Football Club are all about. It was just pure passion and determination to beat our fiercest rival, and to come away with the wins was an unbelievable feeling.
Moving on to Sunday, they could be without Carroll, and they will be without key midfielder Tiote, do you think they could be there for the taking?
Mickey: If you look at Newcastle’s side, it’s built around Andy Carroll, so he’d be a big loss. They’ve got other players in form like Nolan & Barton who are on top of their games at the moment, who’ll need watching.
However I’m not sure they’ve got their back four sorted out, so I think we can get at them there. Tiote can break things up the middle and he’ll be a big miss, so they’re certainly there to be got at. We’ve got pace, we’ve got that extra bit of guile in midfield which I don’t think they have, so I’m expecting goals, and I’m going for 3-1 to us.
You’re going for 3-1 then?
Mickey: I’m going to go for 3-1, I’m not sure if Shola Ameobi’s going to play, he has a knack of scoring against us, so I think they’ll get a goal. I’m not sure how the scoring will go, who will take the lead etc, but I’m going to stick with 3-1.
Well I’ll be over the moon if it is 3-1; I’ll have a sore head at work on Monday if that happens!
You, me and 44000 others! It’s a great occasion, and you want to walk around the city proud the following week.
As a player, the memories always stick with you, and it’s nice to remember the ones you’ve won. That’s why I mentioned Jordan having that fight and desire to get his first derby win, when he hangs up his boots it will be the one he remembers most.
On Sunday though, I’ll be watching with my mates, cheering the lads on!
Mickey, along with fellow former SAFC stars Nicky Summerbee & Chris Makin are having a Q&A at Chester-Le-Street Cricket Club this Friday night (14/01/11). I'm not sure how much tickets are, but I'm sure if you follow Mickey on Twitter he'll help you out - @mickygray33