The doors that open thanks to being part of Roker Report are quite wonderful. Not only do I get to chat to our other lovely contributors on a weekly basis on the podcast, but I get to talk to Sunderland stars of the past.
Today's interviewee is no exception. He was always one of my favourite players at the club, and although things conspired against him somewhat, he's always been something of a hero to me.
He spent two spells with us in the North East, and now plies his trade in Australia.
So, enough of me chatting away eh, you aren't here for that. You're here to see what our guest star had to say for himself when I caught up with him. Ladies and Gentlefolk, welcome to Roker Report meets... Michael Bridges.
You grew up as a Sunderland fan, yes?
Michael: Actually no, my family grew up in North Shields, and both of my parents were black and white. I was actually a Tottenham Hotspur fan. I was just a huge Chris Waddle fan, it might sound sad, but I had the haircut and I used to try and be just like him. Had his picture all over my bedroom wall, when he went to Tottenham I supported Tottenham, when he went to Marseille, I supported Marseille, and then I had the pleasure of playing with him at Sunderland. To sit in the dressing room and have your idol walk in was just sensational.
What was your first memory of Sunderland as a club?
Michael: First memory would have to be playing at school, and the scouts coming to watch me. I was actually part of the Newcastle United Centre of Excellence, but a scout called Jack Hickson came to watch me and he took me over to Sunderland and I had a two week trial over there as part of my six form college studies, so I went over to the training camp with Peter Reid, and after being there for a week they decided that they wanted to sign me as a professional. And I jumped at the chance. Everything just fell into place, the club was going in the right direction, the fan base was tremendous, and everything was just great.
Do you remember your debut at the club?
Michael: Yes, yes I do. It was against Port Vale. I'd had a really good time in the youth team, and scored a lot of goals for the reserves as well. I'd travelled with the first team for about six weeks on the bus and in the squad, but never got off the bench. Against Port Vale, I remember warming up and my stomach was going crazy, I needed the toilet and I was feeling sick... The Roker Roar was going up and I was just getting tingles and butterflies and Reidy said ‘what's wrong with you?'... I told him that it was nerves and he told me to sort myself out because I was going on. I got 35 minutes and came off with the 'Man Of The Match' award. I was given two bottles of whisky and a bottle of champagne, but I couldn't even drink them, my Dad took them off me because I wasn't old enough. It was a sensational feeling. A lot of the supporters knew that I'd come through the youth team, but to actually come on at Roker Park and to perform like that was just sensational, I loved it. Despite the nerves and everything, as soon as you step over that white line and you're back in your comfort zone, it's just brilliant.
Is there a match that you look back on and think, ‘that was my best game?'
Michael: It's tricky to just pick one. When we beat Manchester United at Roker Park, that was sensational. For me personally, it was a game at Sheffield United away. I got two goals and Steve Bruce was their captain, and I ran rings around him. Martin Scott was our penalty taker and he came up and gave me the ball and he said, ‘go on son, there you go, get your hat-trick', and he give us the ball in front of our away fans and I put the bastard wide. But yeah, that match. Steve Bruce actually came up to me after the game and told me that he thought he should retire as I'd totally showed him up, and wished me all the best for the rest of my career. That was the best.
Did you have a favourite season at the club?
Michael: Well, every season at Sunderland was excellent. We were promoted as champions, then relegated. Promoted as champions, then relegated. I've got three Championship medals with the club and I've won so much there. It's a big honour and a great feeling. The stand out season would have to be the year after the playoff finals. After that match we got on the bus and obviously Micky Gray was suicidal, but Bally climbed on and said, ‘you lot, let's forget about this, we'll put it behind us, and next season we'll be promoted as champions.' Sure enough, we went on and got the record points, and it was just an excellent season. Even though we probably achieved more in the Premier League when Kev was on fire, that season tops it for me.
If you had to pick one, who was the toughest opponent that you came up against?
Michael: Kevin Muscat, the Aussie. He elbowed me, punched me, kicked me... Everything that you can imagine really. Either him or Martin Keown and Tony Adams, they were animals.
And the trickiest in training?
Michael: Kevin Ball. I'm still scared of Bally to this day.
You were at the club when Phillips and Quinn were at the height of their powers. Do you ever wonder how things might have been if they weren't there?
Michael: No, not at all, as it wouldn't have been Sunderland then. What Quinny did for the club, both on and off the pitch was sensational, and what Kev did on it, the little and large combination was fantastic. I know that me and Danny (Dichio) used to fill in every now and then, but what I learnt as a kid from the two of them was invaluable, so there would never have been a question of what might have been, no. I know I went to Leeds and did what I did there, I got my chance and took it, but at Sunderland, we had a great squad, and it was all about the squad there. We had two people for every position, the team got rotated well, and it worked wonders. It wouldn't have been the same without those two.
We all remember Premier Passions. Did it bother you at all to get a telling off from the manager as a teenager, and for it to be shown on TV?
Michael: Not at all, no. You have to grow up quickly in football, it's a harsh industry and you learn things fast. At the time, I did wonder what the hell was going on, and people thought it was all just put on a little bit for the TV, but that wasn't it at all. Reidy was a passionate man, and that's just what he was all about. Maybe he did overstep the mark at times, but when he wanted to fire his players up, he knew what he was doing, and maybe you need that every now and then. He certainly got the reaction that he was after, but it's interesting when you're a 16-and-a-half lad that's just left school and your mam sees that happening on the telly and she wants to ring up the manager and give him a piece of her mind, but I managed to persuade her to let me fight my own battles. I think overall it affected my family more than it did me.
I think most fans were stunned when, amidst rumours of a fall out with Peter Reid, news broke that you were going to leave following a break down in contract talks. Did you feel that you were being forced out of the club?
Michael: Yes. Me and Reidy had a fall out over certain things that were going on at the time to do with agents, and things couldn't be cured after that. I didn't want to leave, and I had a really good relationship with Bob Murray and his family and he actually came to the house to talk to me and to my Mam and Dad but unfortunately, despite everything, it was irretrievable for as long as Reidy was there. That was the end of it really, and I was just cast aside. It was a sad way to leave, but we kept it all in house and I didn't want to come out and slag anyone off, as you never know when your paths will cross again in the future.
Then, of course, Reidy came to Leeds and was my manager there, so you just have to let bygones be bygones and get on with things.
After leaving Sunderland, you had great success at Leeds. Do you ever look back and think about what could have been, if you hadn't been blighted by injuries?
Michael: Of course I do, definitely. I think things do happen for a reason, but before the injury I was named in the World Cup squad alongside Alan Smith, then when Sven took over as manager of England, he named me in the squad, but then I broke my leg over in Turkey, and it never materialised. So, in that respect, yeah I do, I never know where it might have taken me on the world stage, but it just wasn't meant to be, and I've enjoyed absolutely everything that happened in the meantime. You can't turn back time. I've had a great career and wouldn't swap it for anything.
How did you second spell with us come about?
Michael: I was at Bolton and had the pre-season there but found out that I wasn't in the plans for the first team, so I wanted to get out and carry on playing as I was feeling good about myself. Like I said, I had a good relationship with Bob Murray, and Reidy had moved on, and I got a call from Bob who just said to me, ‘do you want to come home?' I jumped at the chance and came on loan and we got promoted again that year and had a great time of it.
There's a saying in football that you should never go back. Were you ever worried about ruining the memories that you made during your first spell, or were you just happy to return?
Michael: I was just happy to get back. I knew what was going on with Sunderland, I knew the whole set up, the academy and everything that they were trying to achieve, so I just wanted to get back there.
It was said in the media that you were happy to sit on the bench during that second spell, what's your take on that?
Michael: I remember listening to the radio one night and Eric Gates saying that I was just happy to play very little, but I'm not one of those lads who will go into the club and kick off and kick up a stink if I'm not playing. I would never want to come across as a nasty piece of work, and that's all just detrimental to the team. I'd actually said that I was happy to play a part when and where I was needed, and I was just glad to be a part of the whole thing, but Eric Gates said on the Legends show that I'd lost my desire and that I was happy just being a bit-part player, and that really hurt me as I thought that, if he's saying that, then the fans might think the same thing. I thought that a club would prefer to have a player who is happy to contribute when needed rather than someone who is kicking off all the time when he's not in the team on a Saturday. We were on a good roll, and the manager knew what he was doing, so I just had to work hard to get my chance, but when Gatesy said that it hurt as he was a fellow pro and a good friend, and I didn't expect it from him.
In all of your career, who do you think that you formed the best partnership with up front?
Michael: Definitely Harry Kewell. He used to drift in from the left and pretty much every goal that I'd score would have been set up by him, and I would have played a part in a lot of his goals too. We were brilliant mates on and off the field, we were always together, and it was almost like we could read each other's minds out there on the field.
If you could choose an all-time XI from the players that you have played alongside, who would be in it?
Michael: Okay, so goalkeeper would have to be Shay Given, he was sensational at Sunderland and we all know what's happened to him ever since.
Left back would be Micky Gray (although Ian Harte would have been a contender), then Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate in the centre, and Darius Kubicki at right back. He was better than Gareth bloody Hall any day of the week, the guy was a genius and an utterly crazy man. He got tackled in one game when I was a YTS, and I was cleaning the physio department during a game and Darius came in at half time during a match with his shin hanging open, it was absolutely horrendous, but he just walked in and said ‘inject me, inject me, I play on'. Then he got some stitches, threw his shin pad back on and off he went, and I just couldn't believe it. What a guy.
Left wing Harry Kewell as I mentioned, then I suppose I've got to have Bally in there (because I'm sh*t scared of him and he might kill me if he realised I didn't put him in), right wing I'd have Lee Bowyer, and it's going to have to be Gary Speed in the middle too.
Upfront, can I put myself in? Well, I'm not going to. It's going to be Super Kev, Mr Phillips, and... actually no, Quinny instead, and Robbie Fowler. Phillips is going to have to go on the bench. That's not a bad team at all is it?
And my last question... Do you have a message for the Sunderland fans?
Michael: I do. Thank you for everything that you gave me. Thanks for the support, all the funny songs that you came up with and the way that you accepted me not once, but twice, and just keep supporting the boys. It's a huge club that's going places and I'm delighted that Martin O'Neill's there now as he's exactly the right man to take the club on to the next level. And, hopefully, you never know, one day I might be back in the North East alongside Bally in the coaching department. Sunderland plays a big part in my heart, and I've got so, so many good memories, so hopefully one day I can return in some capacity and give something back.
One more, how's it going out in Australia?
Michael: Yeah it's going really well. I actually retired last year, and they asked me to coach the strikers, but as I was training so well, I've actually come out of retirement and am back playing again, enjoying myself and scoring a lot of goals, so hopefully I'll be able to carry on playing for another couple of years now. I'm doing my coaching badges too, and it's going really well.