Whisper it quietly, especially if you are within earshot anyone associated with Sky Sports, but football did actually exist before the Premier League's advent in 1992. Long before Kevin Phillips lobbed Tommy Wright and Kevin Ball smashed his own bar from fully 30 yards in monsoon conditions at St James park, there was another Sunderland team who went there in wet conditions and, with perhaps unprecedented high stakes for a Tyne/Wear derby, broke black and white hearts.
The opportunity to have a chat with one of the heroes of that Play Off victory in 1990 arose and I make no apologies for putting my name on it. The hero in question was Gary Owers. A favourite of mine back in the first Sunderland team I properly supported, and a player who gave ten years and over 300 games service to our club. Gary was similarly thorough answering our questions, as we quizzed him for his thoughts on, amongst other things, that night at St James, the day we were relegated at Maine Road, the 1992 cup run, a boozy night in Exeter, and where he believes the club is at right now.Obviously we all know that you were born in Newcastle, but were you a Sunderland fan as a lad?
Gary: I was born in Newcastle, and unfortunately I couldn't do anything about that! If I could have, I would have. But when I got to 13 I was picked up by Sunderland so my colours were nailed to the mast.
I think most Sunderland fans will always remember you as a right back or a right winger. What did you consider to be your favoured position?
Gary: When I was a young lad, I made my début as a left winger at Brentford away and for the whole of that season I played left wing. Denis Smith wanted me in the team and that's where I played. Then I played down the right hand side and, probably because of my energy, the manager tended to pick me wherever he had to really – I played right back, left back, central midfield. But I would definitely say, especially as I got older, that central midfield was my position.
So did you ever feel that your versatility worked against you and damaged your ability to develop as a footballer at all?
Gary: No, no, I was lucky. I played most weeks and it always meant I got a run of games. To be fair I loved it, I enjoyed it, and I was happy to be playing.
You were part of a few very memorable games and times for Sunderland that have gone down in Sunderland folk-lore. What were your memories of them? We have to really start with the 1990 Play Offs win at St James Park...
Gary: The best night of my life in terms of football. Just unbelievable. Up until that moment in time it was probably the biggest Newcastle/Sunderland game ever because of what was at stake, and even more so because the first game had ended a draw. We were expected to get beat but we went there in the pouring rain and we just battered them.
It seemed almost your first touch of the game was when you set up Eric Gates for the first goal...
Gary: If you check I don't think Gatesy had scored for a while. He'd been on a little bit of a run [without a goal]. He knew what the game was all about so it was brilliant for Eric. I got on really well with Eric. He looked after me when I was a kid in the dressing room. He had a lot of time for me and whenever I bump into him now we have a good chat.
The biggest regret about that game was the fact we didn't really get a chance to go and celebrate with the supporters at the end. The police wouldn't let us out. I look at the pictures now and you see so many fans crammed into that end and it's just amazing.
This would be the infamous pitch invasion from the Newcastle fans after Marco's goal, of course. What can you tell us about that incident from your vantage point on the pitch?
Gary: Well we'd been told somewhere along the line that it might happen so it wasn't a massive shock. The first one wasn't too bad, but the second one was like "lets get off here as quickly as possible". I mean looking back it's hilarious – someone gets a kick up the arse, John McPhail gets a clip round the ear. It's almost comical looking at it now but at the time it wasn't so funny.
I always say that the key to that was the referee, George Courtney. He just stood there as cool as a cucumber. He had the ball behind his back and he said "don't worry lads. If we have to stay till two o'clock in the morning we'll finish this game", so that put your mind at rest. I remember I had a bit of cramp late in the game and I was on the far side. He said "we've got three minutes to go but I'll give you a 30 second warning for when I'm going to end the game". So he restarted the game, played about three seconds, blew his whistle and ran off and there was me stuck on the far side of the pitch with cramp and all sorts struggling to keep up with him!
What about the game at Maine Road the following year when we went down?
Gary: That was the flip side, really. We played Arsenal a week before and I played central midfield and we should have beaten them really. I put one in the top corner with about five minutes to go and David Seaman plucked it out when everyone in the ground thought it was in. He wrote about that in his book as one of the best saves he'd ever made. A week later we beat Luton and it went to the last game with 15,000 Sunderland fans at Maine Road. I'd went from playing central midfield, again, to being switched to right back, sliced a clearance just before half time, and Niall Quinn scored.
But we started the game absolutely flying out of the traps. We went a goal up but ended up losing the game and got relegated. But really, I felt we were good enough to stay up. We probably just didn't have enough experience in the side at the end of the day. We were all still just young lads.
It is well-documented now, of course, that that was the game when Niall Quinn really fell in love with Sunderland on the back of the incredible support that day...
Gary: It was just incredible. You don't see things like that any more and you won't see it again. Supporters don't get that many tickets now, for one thing. But that didn't just happen that day. It seemed like every game that season – The Baseball Ground, White Heart Lane, you name it.
I have to ask you about the night a few of the lads ended up on the wrong side of the law following a league cup game at Exeter...
Gary: It was a really tricky game for us and we were 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go and somehow we pulled it back to 2-2. Denis Smith at the end of the game said "we've got out of jail tonight" and by the next morning about 6 of the lads had been locked up and the front page news read "'We Got Out Of Jail Tonight' – Oh No You Didn't!".
Basically what happened was this: We had stayed overnight and at the end of the game a couple of the lads went out. Fortunately, me, Dickie Ord, and Gary Bennett had stayed in the hotel. So we were sat in the hotel bar and the lads walk in a little bit sheepishly and the next minute there are helicopters and people swinging through the door and all sorts and we are sat there thinking 'what's happened here?!'.
It was blown out of all proportion. I think there had been a little bit of car damage. The press used to travel with us so I thought they abused their position a little bit. They were there, they were on the inside and out with the lads drinking, but then as soon as they got wind of the story they were very quick to get on the phone to their editors. They could have done us a favour and kept it a little bit quiet. By the time we'd got back to Newcastle Airport it was like the Beatles were in town. Television cameras were everywhere and people on the roof. It was definitely blown out of all proportion. I think we won the replay about 5-0 or something.
What are your memories of the 1992 cup run?
Gary: Well I was lucky. I played in the third round against Port Vale at home but then I got injured. It was the worst injury I had and I missed all the games until being fit to play in the final. But obviously we went everywhere together. The lads started playing a Pogues CD on away games, but then a couple of the games were in London so we started going on the train instead. I think it was the team spirit that got us through. Just a great bunch of lads.
So at what point during the run did the team start thinking they could may be go all they way?
Gary: I think it was West Ham in the replay. That was when I thought 'something is happening here'. Tony Norman was immense at Upton Park. Then you get a draw at Chelsea and win the replay. We went into the semi-final expecting to beat Norwich. I wouldn't say the final was an anti-climax because it was obviously very big at the time, but Liverpool were just better than us on the day.
Which of the lads are you still in contact with now?
Gary: Dickie Ord is a friend for life. He's been more like family than a friend over the years. Gary Bennett has become a real friend and I didn't expect it at the time, but he just looks after everyone. He makes sure all the lads are alright. If you lose your job or something he'll get on the phone, and I think that's brilliant. And then people like Gordon Armstrong, Gatesey, Anton Rogan, Don Goodman, John Byrne – friends for life.
After being a regular in the team for so long, did it come as a shock when you were allowed to leave?
Gary: I wasn't greatly shocked, no. There were a few things going on in my life and I made the wrong decision. But I am glad I did it because I went to Bristol and it changed my life greatly. I went down there and met the girl who's now my wife, got two kids who are both Bristolians, and I'm settled in the area. I had a couple bad years that I've never really spoke about, but I lost my mother and that hit me a lot more than I probably thought it did looking back. For me it was good that I got away from the area.
I think I could have gathered myself again and I definitely wish I could have been there when Peter Reid came in. I definitely missed out there because I know that I had more in me, but there were other things going on, shall we say.
When I left I felt like I had sort of slipped out over night. I was gutted. I had actually been there ten years and I was seeing other people get testimonials and that was something that never got mentioned to me. I wouldn't say I felt let down, but it was something that was going through my mind. But if you look at the number of appearances I made for the club in the end I am right up there, so they got their money's worth.
… and how close were you to leaving before? There was a time you were regularly linked with big moves away...
Gary: They could have sold me and could have made a lot of money. I probably could have gone to any club in the country. I got injured at the wrong time and I think that relegation (1990-91) was key as well. But, to be honest, the other side of it was that I was happy to stay. I wanted to play for Sunderland. I didn't see that there was many places that could better it. I was playing every week in front of fabulous and passionate supporters, I was from the north east, and Sunderland never really wanted to let me go.
There were a couple of managerial issues. Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton saw how close everybody was and the bond the players had and they didn't like it and that was why the decided to smash the whole thing up. That was the shift in the sands until Peter Reid came in and really got a grip of it again.
So what game was the loudest you ever heard Roker Park?
Gary: It could be every week. I could never say one week from the next because it could be any game.
What do you make of what is going on at Sunderland at the moment and how the club is progressing?
Gary: They've done well but if you are looking at the money they are spending and have spent, they are in the big-hitters kind of league and you have to say they need to get to the next level. Europe, perhaps? It's difficult, and I hope I'm not speaking out of line, but I think they must have invested as much as almost any other club.
They have done OK. Done well in spells and then just not done it for the whole season, really. At Christmas time last year you might have thought that everything was going well and then it just falls away a little bit.
How often do you get back to watch the lads?
Gary: I never went back to Roker after I left. I never got invited back, not that it made any difference, but I just couldn't face going back so I missed out there. The first time I went back me and Dickie Ord went to see Sunderland play Manchester United at the Stadium of Light and we couldn't get a ticket from the club and had to stand in the Man Utd end. That was my first visit back and it felt a bit awkward.
Niall Quinn gets loads of credit for everything – he's an excellent chairman and an excellent bloke – but one of the things that Niall has done that he doesn't get enough credit for is this: I think he went up there and thought 'where's the history gone? Where's all the people who used to be part of it?'. He's brought all of that back in. Monty looks after all the former players so if I want to go to a game now I can go to a game, which is brilliant. I've come up and sat on the table a few times with Monty and I've always felt welcome and I enjoy it. Unfortunately I live in Bristol and still work in football so opportunities to do it are few and far between.
The last game I went to was against Chelsea on the day that Newcastle went down. I've never heard a crowd celebrate a goal scored on the radio so much. My son was with me but he didn't really understand. He couldn't believe the Sunderland fans were cheering as if they'd scored but it was about Newcastle losing at Aston Villa. My lads don't really understand that in another life their dad had hair and played for Sunderland.
What are you up to now and what does the future hold?
Gary: My role at Bristol City is a Development Coach and scouting, so I work with the under-21s here and then going to watch games in-between to see if I can find any good young players. I was a manager at Bath and Forest Green then I went to Portsmouth for three years to manage their charitable foundation and I was assistant manager at Aldershot, so I've been well involved. I'm a very well qualified coach. I like coaching and I'm an ambitious coach so who knows what the future holds.
… do you harbour any dreams of Sunderland being in that future?
Gary: I'd love to go back one day. If I ever had the chance to go back to Sunderland and be a coach, that's something I'd love to do.
And on that note we''ll say a big thank you to Gary for taking time to speak to us, and the staff of Bristol City who put us in touch with Gary when many other clubs are incredibly unhelpful!