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"I Was Gutted That I Left - Sunderland Was My Club" - Roker Report Meets Craig Russell (Part One)

Craig Russell - otherwise known as the 'Jarra Arra' - lived the dream of every boy hood Sunderland supporter. Now back at the club he loves as part of the backroom team, the former Manchester City forward sat down with Roker Report to talk about his career.

Craig Russell of Sunderland in action
Craig Russell - 'the Jarra Arra' - played 174 games for Sunderland in a career that spanned six years.
Getty images

RR: You made your debut for Sunderland in 1991 under Denis Smith - how good did that feel as a red-and-whiter through and through, to finally make your debut?

CR: It was unbelievable - I hadn’t even played for the reserves much at the time. We had played an FA Youth Cup game down at Bury during week. That went to extra time, actually. The week after I got the call that I was playing in the reserves on the Thursday, which was a good step for me anyway.

I took the towels and that in to Denis Smith the following day, as you usually do, and he went “you better get yourself home, you’re in the squad tomorrow."

You could have knocked me down with a feather - I had only just made me debut for the reserves!

I thought he must have been taking the mick. I went home and told my mam and dad, and then had my usual, fish and chips, for tea. It was a proud moment for my family. I was cup final baby. I was born almost exactly nine months after the FA cup win.

I think my Mam and Dad had a good celebration!

RR: You got some game time under Terry Butcher too when he took over. Although his time at the club was short lived, what did you think of Terry?

CR: He was good with me. He tried to help me improve my game, but I don’t think he saw eye to eye with most of the older pros to be honest, going from playing alongside them then managing them.

He just didn’t get the balance right. He brought in some really good, solid footballers. Mel (Andy Melville) ended up being very good for the club; Alec Chamberlain did alright and carved a fantastic career at Watford. Phil Gray was a very good centre forward.

But he (Terry) couldn’t manage people. That was his downfall. He couldn’t man manage people very well at all - that’s where he really struggled. Like I say, he had good players at the club, but eventually he just ended up creating a poor atmosphere.

But, in fairness, it was his first job -he did well with Inverness in the not so distant past.

RR: You scored 31 goals during your time at Sunderland. Which one was your favourite, and why?

CR: Manchester United away, because it was at Old Trafford I suppose. FA Cup 3rd Round, 8000 Sunderland fans - you can’t beat it.

The thing is, it wasn’t a second string team that we beat - Cantona, Scholes, Beckham and so on. We had gone 1-0 down early in the game and it wasn’t deserved. Nicky Butt scored, but we battled back to 1-1 when I had a chance to just run at the goal and try a shot.

I remember I had to get the shot off as Gary Neville was in the corner of my eye and catching me up. It managed just to get in the back of the net. Unfortunately, Cantona got the equaliser. Mickey (Gray) fouled Lee Sharpe - it was never a free kick and an Alec Chamberlain mistake got the goal for them and took it to a replay. Alec never got a look in sadly after that - Shay Given came in and was unbelievable.

I worked with Shay at Newcastle and with the Republic of Ireland. I always say to Shay that he made it as a goalkeeper after training with me!

RR: Watching Premier Passions, you could see the discipline Reidy and Saxton had instilled in the club - despite being relegated we actually managed to do well and were unlucky to get relegated on forty points. What was that season like at the club?

CR: From a personal point of view, it was good and bad.

Not being involved in the first Premier League game at Roker Park, against Leicester, was disappointing - I was really low. I played the next game, but was in and out of the team. I knuckled down though and trained hard and eventually got a run in the side on my own up front. I got three goals in three games – Derby, Everton and Chelsea.

Around March time, though, we played West Ham away and I got wiped out by Luděk Mikloško - I felt my shoulder in pain then looked at my arm and it was like a floppy piece of jelly. I was out for a bit after that and I just couldn’t get back in the team.

I was in and out of it till the end of the season, but if it wasn’t for the injury I honestly thought I would have scored more. At the end of the season though, being relegated, it was devastating as a player and as a fan for me. We had forty points and we still went down.

RR: Your final game at Sunderland was against Middlesbrough - did you know it was time to go or did you not have much choice?

CR: I had a hernia issue in the summer so I had spent a little bit of time on the treatment table when I got told to pop into Reidy’s office.

I was thinking “what’s this about like?”, and Peter said a bid of £1.6m had been accepted by the club from Manchester City. I went down and spoke to Frank Clarke and got on really well with him, and just thought it was the right move.

However, I went and failed my medical so the transfer got called off. Middlesbrough were also after me, but Reidy wouldn’t allow the move because it was a local rival.

West Ham were after me in the Premiership as well, but he blocked that move too as they were battling relegation with us – but then, when it suited him, he let me move to Manchester City.

I was gutted that I left - Sunderland was my club.

I had been at Sunderland so long and it was the only place I wanted to be. I felt pushed out of the door, to be honest. I just felt after that bid was accepted from City and the medical was failed, I was just waiting for the next call into the Manager’s office to say a bid had been accepted from someone else and I was free to go.

When I left though one of my old team mates told me that in one game there was a chance - someone ran clean through on goal and we missed it. Sacko (Bobby Saxton) had been shouting “Where’s Russ? Russ would of scored that man!”

He was class Sacko, I’d be very surprised if anyone told you any different.

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