"Bally Was The Best Captain I've Played For" - Roker Report Meets Alec Chamberlain

Read our interview with Alec Chamberlain.

This interview has been a long time in coming. When I was first offered the opportunity to conduct my inaugural Roker Report interview the summer sun was still shining, as we all bathed in the optimism onset by a plethora of early transfer window activity.

 

What seemed a simple task soon turned into a heavily drawn-out process. I found myself suddenly having a life at the most inopportune time, which, combined with the man I was attempting to interview's hectic schedule, led to numerous delays.

 

Eventually though, we got round to having a little chat. I say little, it was actually a lengthy and fully enjoyable exchange. Even that was a while ago, this piece's publication having been delayed yet further by my own inability to transcribe quickly, but now I can finally present it to you.

 

I would like to quickly thank Watford FC, whose patience and willingness to arrange the exchange was instrumental in it eventually occurring. Without their help, Roker Report would never have had the chance to speak with... Alec Chamberlain.

'I had a difficult first year. I remember one of the early games at Roker Park, I got a back pass from Gary Bennett against Wolves. I've gone to clear it and it's hit Mike Small's hand and gone back into the goal of the Fulwell End. It was handball, but it wasn't given, so that didn't exactly enamour me with the supporters!'

It's safe to say Alec Chamberlain's Sunderland career didn't get off to the best of starts. That game against Wolves, which ended in a 0-2 defeat, had been preceded a month earlier by a crushing 0-5 loss on the opening day at Derby County, 'that was a hard one to swallow as well'.

 

There was worse to come. When asked about his initial relationship with the red and white fans, he recalls an episode that clearly came as a shock to the system for him. 'I got booed from three sides of Roker Park when I conceded a goal against Stoke,' he recalls. 'They touched the free kick inside and Mark Walters whipped it inside the wall and in off the post. Not the side I'm covering, and I've gone full length and got beaten, and honestly to this day I'd say I had no chance. For whatever reason, the Sunderland faithful thought “he's at fault there”, and the next time I got the ball I was booed from three sides of the ground.'

 

Chamberlain is frank in his admission that this was a low point for him while on Wearside, and that it proved to be a great test of his own mental toughness. And yet, when questioned over whether he ever felt he'd made a mistake in moving to the north-east, he is stern in his rejection.

 

'I signed for three years. I was never one to jump ship. I was always one to believe you sign a contract in good faith. I was there for the experience of playing for a big club and, as much as it was disappointing to start with, it never crossed my mind that I had to get out.'

 

To his great credit, he was rewarded for his professionalism and loyalty, 'in the end, the supporters were fantastic with me.' By the time he departed for pastures new at Watford, Chamberlain had earned himself a Division One championship winners medal, and propelled Sunderland into the Premier League for the first time since its inception in 1992.

 

Speaking about his family, he says 'we all enjoyed our time in the north-east. From my wife's point of view, she thought we were going to the end of the world and cried all the way up there. Ironically, she cried all the way when we left the north-east because she'd made so many friends!'

 

Yet, as we have seen, his Sunderland career never quite looked like being a successful one, for his arrival and opening two years at the club coincided with a downturn in their fortunes.

 

At first he concedes that the introduction by Butcher of numerous new signings 'ruffled a few feathers' in the dressing room, as those previously guaranteed first-team football found their places under threat. Ultimately it would lead to Butcher's dismissal as manager, with Mick Buxton taking over the reigns.

 

Under Buxton, Chamberlain continued his tussle with crowd favourite Tony Norman for the number one jersey, a man who he states became a good friend despite their professional competition. In the days before five substitutes were allowed however, the replacement goalkeeper usually found themselves 'travelling to away games then doing the local radio commentary'. For Chamberlain, a man who had become known at both Colchester United and Luton for his lengthy runs in the first-team without absence, this no doubt proved infuriating, but he remained professional throughout.

 

From here, I mention the intriguing deal that saw him join Liverpool on loan at the end of the 1994/95 season, solely as a back-up goalkeeper for the Reds' upcoming Littlewoods Cup Final against Bolton. The Anfield outfit won 2-1 that day at Wembley, and Chamberlain laughs at the fact he won a medal without kicking (or handling) a ball for the Merseysiders, 'yeah, it's bizarre! A good pub quiz question!'

 

For all the positives though, that loan deal left him at something of an impasse. 'We didn't know at the time, but Mick Buxton was nearing the end of his tenure. He let me go and I went [to Liverpool]. I literally had two days training, and then Mick got the sack.' Worried for his future at Sunderland, Chamberlain quickly rang the incoming manager Peter Reid from his Liverpool hotel room, stating that he felt he needed to come back to Wearside and fight for his first-team place. This was met with rejection from Reid, who told him he was to remain at Anfield until the end of the season, something Chamberlain felt was maybe unfair at the time. 'Now though, being in the coaching side, I realise it was simply an administration thing. You can't be recalled in the first 28 days [of a loan spell]; by the end of those 28 days the season was basically over.'

 

In the summer that followed, Peter Reid went about changing the entire make-up of the team, and it was no secret to anyone inside the club that he aimed to sign Brad Friedel. When this move failed, Chamberlain found himself as number one 'by default'.

 

Replicating his previous streaks of appearances, he was a starter in every game until mid-January, when a certain Shay Given arrived on the scene. Chamberlain's initial impression of Given was that the young Irishman was a trialist, 'he looks sharp, he looks decent.' Little did the more senior goalkeeper know, but Given had actually been drafted in on loan from Blackburn Rovers, and would be going straight in Sunderland's first-team.

 

'It was incredible timing really. I went into the Charley Hurley Centre [Sunderland's training ground in the days before the Academy of Light] to go and see Peter Reid to discuss my future because I only had six months left on my contract.' Chamberlain asked the manager what his situation was, and was met with the most unexpected of replies, 'he turned round and said, “you're not playing on Sunday."' Chamberlain could only muster a baffled “you what?” in reply, before being told that about the Given situation.

 

'That kind of took the wind out of my sails. I went home with my tail between my legs to be honest! I knew then, my days were numbered.' In spite of this, he maintained his own high standards of professionalism, regaling me with his mantra of 'play hard and keep myself right, as you don't know what's going to be around the corner.' He found himself out of the side for the best part of three months – 'Shay did fantastically well, so I've got no problem with that' – and it looked as if he would leave the club on a deflated note.

 

But, due to an injury to Given, he found himself back in the team for the season's finishing straight. 'I went in and kept a clean sheet against Charlton, we drew 0-0. I don't think I conceded a goal until the final game of the season, when we'd already won the division. I timed my run back into the side for all the good stuff at the end of the season.' It was this spell that really captivated Chamberlain, and is the prime reason in why he now looks back at his Sunderland days fondly. 'Had I not got back in the side for those final six games I think it would have ended on a sour note, but I had those wonderful experiences of getting the trophy against West Brom at home, the civic reception, the open-top bus. It was brilliant.' His standing amongst the fans, once on such rocky terrain, had been solidified too, 'I think that's the main reason why I've been so welcomed back – because of the last six games.'

 

A key factor in Chamberlain enjoying his spell at the Black Cats was the camaraderie that existed in the dressing room in that championship winning season and, in particular, the presence of Kevin Ball. 'Bally is someone I've stayed in touch with. He epitomised everything about Sunderland and about that dressing room. Bally was the best captain I've played for. I have so much respect for what he was like as a fellow professional and also he became a friend. He made my time at Sunderland so much better for him being there. I've got a lot to be thankful to Bally for.'

 

With that friendship came an equal understanding on a professional level. He tells me of how he and Ball, the captain, would turn to one another before each game and simultaneously tell one another, 'don't f**k up today' before walking down the tunnel to the pitch. Whilst this was a tongue-in-cheek exchange between two friends, he is at pains to point out the more serious underlying implication. 'I knew what it meant to be playing at the club. Deep down, we meant it. It was more than a joke. Do this today and we'll be fine.'

 

All in all, he speaks with great fondness of the time he shared with what he described as a few 'quite big characters. 'Ordy [Richard Ord] was always the one at the start of the messing about in the dressing room so I could reel off a couple of stories, not sure you could print them though! The likes of Gary Owers and that were always making you laugh. I suppose having never been in the north-east before, the real powerful accent, it made everything seem funny. A fantastic accent,' he says, before adding, 'I genuinely like the north-east accent.'

 

Chamberlain is adamant that he bore no great disappointment when he left the club, despite the fact the red and whites had been promoted to the top division when he departed. 'I knew my days were up. No regrets. For me it was professional, I had to move on.' He is equally pragmatic when we discuss the coaching staff's opinions of him, 'Football is all about opinions. Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton were obviously of the opinion that I wasn't their cup of tea. There've been plenty of other managers where I have been their cup of tea, so you can't take it overly personal.'

 

That much is certainly true. Chamberlain returned to Northampton, where he had lived while playing for Luton, and soon found himself on the books of Watford. Prior to that though, and prior to his arrival on Wearside, he had played for a number of clubs, starting with UEFA Cup winners Ipswich Town way back in 1981. By his own admission, 'the first year didn't go particularly well.' Chamberlain found himself wondering whether he'd made a poor decision in pursuing a career in football – he also harboured great cricketing potential, having been asked to play for Middlesex's second XI in the forthcoming season. He chose football however, as he thought this was where probability favoured him; 'in the end I just thought, well there's ninety-two league clubs, and there's twenty-two counties (I think there were at the time). It was a simple numbers game.'

 

He found himself released by none other than the late Bobby Robson (who was much later, of course, knighted), a man he says reignited in him a desire to make it in football. 'When he got to me at the end of the line [of players being released], he said “you're the one I think I'm making a mistake about.” I don't think Sir Bobby said those sort of things for effect. I think he was genuine in what he said and that gave me a boost at the time.'

 

From Ipswich, he would have a hugely successful five years at Colchester ('obviously there were ups and downs, but there were more ups than downs, and I went on good run and didn't miss a game for four years!') before moving on to recent League champions Everton. Here, he was understudy to a certain Neville Southall, 'he was arguably the best in the world at the time,' Chamberlain states. Despite the great learning experience though, he yearned for first-team football, 'my most enjoyable three months of that year were when I was on loan to Tranmere', and he was soon on the move again.

 

This time he headed to Luton, where he racked up another almost unblemished appearance record at the side that had recently won the Littlewoods Cup themselves. 'I seem to follow teams around that have been successful,' he laughs. It was at Kenilworth Road that Chamberlain shed himself of the doubt over whether or not he was good enough for top level football that he says had lingered with him, especially during the Everton days. 'I felt the players accepted me and I think my performances were generally pretty good,' he states modestly. 'I had five very happy years there.'

 

With his Luton days coming to an end, Chamberlain found himself on loan at a top club again. This time it was Chelsea, under the guidance of manager Ian Porterfield, a man to whom Sunderland fans need no introduction. The Blues boasted their own fantastic goalkeeper in Dave Beasant, so Chamberlain found himself in the reserves during his time there, yet he maintains it was a move the benefitted him in the long run. 'That two months did me good. I was working every day and, for the first time ever, I'd had a full-time goalkeeping coach. I was playing well in the reserves, I was enjoying the training, and it actually reinvigorated me.'

 

From there, through Sunderland, Chamberlain went to Watford, where he still finds himself today. 'I honestly feel here was where I've been most successful. From the ages thirty-two to thirty-seven I was probably playing better than I ever had. I've spent fifteen years here now, I've had a fantastic time here, and hopefully I've got more to come here.'

 

He now finds himself as the club's goalkeeping coach, entrusted with overseeing the futures of Watford's up and coming stoppers. 'I'm very fortunate, and happy, to still be in the game now. And I'm getting to help young goalkeepers, help them get better.' Chief amongst them is Scott Loach, a man who has played for England's under-21s, and who Chamberlain thinks 'has a very good chance of going into the Premier League at some stage.' The pragmatism and realism that is evident throughout our conversation remains here, when he suggests that Loach's growth as a player will be better nurtured at Watford, as opposed to jumping in at the deep end when he may not yet be ready.

 

All in all, Alec Chamberlain has led an extremely interesting football life. He seems to have enjoyed it thoroughly, and still does so to this day, a reward for the professionalism that he has never swayed from. His time at Sunderland was one with both peaks and troughs, but he is steadfast in his belief that that championship winning season made up for any previous bad times on Wearside.

 

As far as departures from the Black Cats go, he certainly went out on a high.

 

Thanks again to Alec for devoting his time and energy to this interview, and his willingness to answer questions on anything and everything. We sincerely hope you all enjoyed reading the product of that interview. Don't forget, today is Thursday, which is also Roker Report Podcast Day! So get your copy now!

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