Exclusive: Anton Ferdinand Talks Bruce, Derbies & Diouf

Anton Ferdinand spent three years at Sunderland, and makes his return to Wearside this Saturday with new club QPR. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Due to the nature of football and its clubs, it's rare mere bloggers like ourselves get the chance to chat to current Premier League footballers. Usually we get in touch with those who have retired, and have a catch-up with them on all things Sunderland AFC.

Imagine our surprise, then, when QPR got back to us with a positive response to our attempt to interview Anton Ferdinand. Having left Wearside just seven months ago, Ferdinand returns with his new side this coming Saturday. So, with that in mind, join us, as we and Anton chatted Roy Keane, Darren Bent, Steve Bruce, El Hadji Diouf, and much, much more...

We don't see a lot of footballers move up north - especially to Sunderland - from London. What was it that attracted you to the club at the time you signed?

Anton Ferdinand: I'd played at the Stadium of Light before - I knew what the fans were like. I knew the passion that the fans had and that had a big part to play in it.

Roy Keane was a major part of why I signed for Sunderland. I went and met him at his house, we had a chat about football, about Sunderland as a club, and I spoke to Kieran Richardson. I spoke to Kenwyne Jones, and I asked them what it was like and they had nothing but good words to say.

So, as soon as I'd spoke to Roy Keane my mind was made up.

So you would say Roy Keane was a defining factor in it?

AF: Yeah, definitely. I mean to leave a club that you've grown up in, you don't want to go anywhere unless you're going to somewhere to try and better yourself and play for a manager who can teach you things. He's definitely someone that taught me something.

You obviously came along with George McCartney from West Ham and, not long after that, Alan Curbishley resigned. So for you was there a feeling that you were, not necessarily forced out, but given a bit of a push? Or was that nothing to do with it?

AF: Well yeah I was given a bit of a push, you know, but once my mind was made up to go to Sunderland I wasn't worried about how I left West Ham or the reasons why I left. I was fully focused on playing for Sunderland.

It wasn't a case of thinking I had a part to play in Alan Curbishley being sacked, because as far as I was concerned the club needed to sell me because they needed the money - that's what I was told. And with it being a club that I loved and grew up in I thought that was the best way to go - to let them do what they said they needed to.

What was life like under Roy Keane as a manager?

AF: I enjoyed it. He treated everyone the same and I respect him for that.

Whether he signed you, whether he hadn't signed you; whether you were in the team, whether you weren't in the team; he treated everyone the same. As professionals that's all you can ask for from your manager.

You came in at a time when Keane shook the dressing room up. He tried to bring in a lot of "more established" Premier League players, and it didn't really work out for him. What were those first few months like? Were they difficult?

AF: I can only talk for myself and personally I enjoyed it. The fact that someone of his calibre as a player looked at me and thought I could make Sunderland better and make the team better - it gave me tremendous confidence. I enjoyed the three months I had under him.

He had his ways about him but, as I said before, as a human being - and as a professional - you want to be treated that way.

What were your feelings when Keane eventually left?

AF: I was mostly disappointed that he'd left, and with the way that he'd left. Especially with the fact that he'd signed me, I was disappointed.

I'm sure the fans will think and agree that I wasn't just playing for Roy Keane though, I was playing for the team and the whole club - not just the manager. For the fans, for the chairman. And for myself.

I enjoyed my time under Ricky Sbragia - a fantastic coach. One of the best coaches I've had in my playing career.

Yeah, you played under Ricky Sbragia and that year it went down to the final day. There was a suggestion that amongst the players, and perhaps even the coaching staff, that it was thought of as 'job done' before then and there was a dip in form towards the end of the season. Was that the attitude, or was it just a case of things not working as well as they had done previously?

AF: The aim was to stay in the Premier League. Before my time the club had been in, then it was out, then in, then out.

To stay in the Premier League two, three years running was a stepping stone for the club. And now the club are reaping the benefits of staying up. The year after, we finished just outside the top ten. Then the year after that we finished in the top ten. Now the club are pushing to finish even higher in the league.

The Sunderland fans deserve every success they get. The way they support the club, the way they're like a 12th man - I'm privileged to have played for a club like that.

You seemed to have a genuine affinity with the fans. There appeared to be a mutual liking there - was that born out of the supposed "passion" we have here in the North East?

AF: The way I was brought up, I can relate to people. That's the way my mum and dad brought me up, I'm no different to anybody else.

The passion they showed... one's thing for sure, that I'm certain of, is that any Sunderland fan will say the same - whether I played well or whether I didn't, I always put in one hundred and ten percent. Whether I was playing in my preferred position or out of position, I played with my heart on my sleeve and I think the fans respected that.

At times I was playing out of position, I didn't moan about it. I always gave my all and I think the fans appreciate that. That's the way to repay them, you know? Scoring a goal, keeping a clean sheet, putting one hundred and ten percent in every week - that's one of the main things Sunderland fans look for and that's the way to repay them for taking to me the way they did and to show them I was working hard.

A couple of weeks ago we had the North East derby. You were actually one of those fortunate enough to play in one where we won at home, which is very rare for Sunderland in recent years. What was that day like?

AF: It was unbelievable. I was actually talking to Djibril [Cisse] the other day and we were saying that whole week leading up to the derby - personally - I just had this feeling we were not going to lose that game.

The atmosphere was going round the training ground, Roy Keane was putting it to the lads how important this game was to the fans, and to Sunderland as a whole.

To be a part of the first Sunderland team to beat Newcastle at the Stadium of Light and to be remembered by fans as part of that team, that's something that ranks very highly in my career.

You don't know a derby until you've played in it. I've been fortunate to play in a few of them and enjoy them.

There were rumours of a bust-up between yourself and El-Hadji Diouf when you were both at the club. We heard a lot of stories via the tabloid media, and he obviously left the club a few days later, but the story has never really been put straight. I was wondering if you would like to elaborate on that for us?

AF: We had a few words.

It was frustration between both of us. Both of us had the will to win games and that wasn't happening at the time. He told me something I didn't like, I said stuff he didn't like, and it just went on from there.

I'm a winner at the end of the day, I want to win every game I play in. If my teammates around me aren't on the same page then I want to know why. That's the way I am.

He wasn't doing something I wanted him to do so I wanted to know why he didn't want to do it.

So are you two on speaking terms now?

AF: Yeah yeah, if I see him, there's no hard feelings. We're professionals at the end of the day - these things happen. It isn't the first time and it won't be the last time that something like that happens in the changing room.

If I see El-Hadji, I'll say "hello," and we keep it moving.

After that season, Steve Bruce came in. He brought with him the likes of Darren Bent and Lee Cattermole, and basically changed the whole team. What was that like for you especially, having already been there?

AF: My time under Steve Bruce was frustrating. Playing here and there, it was frustrating for me. I'm someone who needs to play, week in, week out, to get the best out of me.

Playing some weeks and not other weeks. It was a case of if I was playing and I made a mistake, even if it didn't lead to a goal, I knew I wasn't playing the week after. That's hard - to go into a game knowing your manager hasn't got faith in you.

It took until the last three months of last season until he had a bit of faith in me and play me more. Then, we managed to finish in the top ten. It took until then for him to have faith in me, which was very frustrating.

But one thing I'm sure of is that he could never fault my attitude. He could never fault my will to win, my passion to play for the club. That was one thing I made sure he couldn't do, there was no way he could ever talk to someone and say that I had a bad attitude because that's not me and I made sure it wasn't me.

Why do you think Bruce was harsh towards you like that? Do you think there were just different players he preferred? Was it personal?

AF: I couldn't tell you - I really really could not tell you.

He'd be the best person to ask that question. I couldn't tell you whether it was personal or otherwise. That was one of the most frustrating things for me - I didn't know the reasons why. I asked the question but I never got the answer.

Last season you were actually not even given a squad number. Did you think this was the end of the road for you at Sunderland?

AF: At first I did. But, the well publicised argument between me and Mr Bruce was probably the best thing to happen for our relationship. He knew where I stood and I now knew where he stood, I respected him more and our relationship kind of flourished after that.

I went to London for a couple of weeks and kept myself fit, of my own accord. I then came back and trained with the reserves for a couple weeks, trained hard, then came back into the first-team fold.

Next thing you know I'm playing against Colchester in the Carling Cup and then against Manchester City on the Sunday and we managed to beat them 1-0. I played quite well on that day.

I think that showed him I had the character and the belief in myself to play for him, and we didn't have many problems after that.

There were some quite barren runs under Bruce - where we went long periods without winning. What were the feelings in the camp at those times, were there problems within?

AF: We went on a run of about fourteen games without a win [in 2010]. I was injured at the time and for me personally it was frustrating, not being able to affect it.There was definitely frustration amongst the boys about not getting results. Some of the games we were very unlucky.

But we stuck at it. That's what Mr Bruce instilled in the team - that we stuck at our task, that we kept going. In the end we came out of the rut and did quite well towards the end of the season.

One thing I simply have to ask about is a certain disallowed goal for you against Spurs and a certain celebration after it. What was going through your head when you realised it had been disallowed?

AF: Pure embarrassment!

I think everyone saw how embarrassed I was. Still to this day, me and Kieran [Richardson] have a laugh about it.

I think Kieran even knew the goal had been disallowed. Yet he was in my ear going, "Do the Michael Jackson, do the Michael Jackson!" And I was like, "Yeah, I'm gonna do it!"

Then the referee waved over - no goal - and Kieran's laughing his head off, it was definitely embarrassing for me.

You left Sunderland when you were actually playing really well. There were suggestions in some newspapers that you weren't happy with the manner of the exit. Could you elaborate on that?

AF: At the time I didn't want to leave. I'd found my feet alongside Wes Brown, and I think it showed in the first two games. We went to Liverpool and got a draw, and we lost against Newcastle in the derby but we played quite solidly together on the day. Then we went to Swansea, and got a draw and a clean sheet there.

I was looking forward to playing a season with someone of that calibre. I thought we had a great partnership going - it showed through pre-season and in the three games we played together in the Premier League.

I didn't want to leave the club and I was enjoying it. But I had just one year left on my contract, and the club came out and said they didn't want to renew my contract.

When a manager comes to you and tells you that, and that you've got an opportunity to go to another club, you have to look at it seriously - and that's what happened. One day I was at Sunderland, then the next one I got a phone call to say I was allowed to go to QPR.

Was there any resentment there?

AF: I was disappointed, there's nothing I could have done about it, I was disappointed to leave the club. I was playing probably my best football for the club and I was enjoying playing with Wes Brown. Certainly, I feel my time was cut short.

But I enjoyed every minute at the club and I made some great friends up there, not just on the pitch but off it too. People behind the scenes - I still talk to a lot of them at Sunderland as well as the players. I enjoyed my three years up there and there's not one thing I regret.

Steve Bruce was eventually sacked after a bad start to the season. With the departure of Asamoah Gyan coming as a shock to outsiders, were there any signs of problems inside the dressing room at the start of this season?

AF: No. I mean, things get said in the dressing room, in the heat of the moment, but it's not personal. Sometimes things just need to be said - that's how it is. There was heart between the lads at Sunderland though, it was never ever a case of the lads not getting together and playing for the shirt. Sometimes things just don't work out for certain managers.

Steve Bruce had a part to play in Sunderland becoming a top ten Premier League club. One year we finished just outside the top ten, then we finished in it.

The departure of Darren Bent last year is seen by a lot of people as something that hurt Bruce as a manager and the club as a whole. What was the reaction in the dressing room to that? Was it out of the blue?

AF: It was a very very big shock. Our leading goalscorer getting sold when we were well on the path to the top ten - it was shock to the lads. But we finished in the top ten anyway. We had players like Kieran who, after we sold Darren Bent, played just off Asamoah Gyan, and he was unbelievable. I think in his first four games as a frontman with Asa they scored something like five goals [between them]. So we had players who softened the blow.

With regards to the likes of Ellis Short, he keeps a very low profile. Did you see much of the owner or was the football side very much left to 'football men'?

AF: Yeah, it's left to the football people. That's the way the club is ran, and that's the way any club should be ran.

The club is ran fantastically well - it's the best-ran club I've been at. That's because the football people do the football, and the business people do the business.

Finally, what is your favourite memory from your time at Sunderland?

AF: Definitely beating Newcastle at the Stadium of Light - definitely.

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Thank you very much to Anton for taking time to speak to us, it was an absolute pleasure. Plus of course the media people at QPR, who unlike many we've encountered since doing this site were quite unhelpful and up themselves, the lads there were first class.

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