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"I Left My Heart At Roker Park" - Roker Reports Meets... Craig Russell (Part Two)

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Craig Russell lived out the boyhood dreams of every Sunderland supporter by representing the club as a player, but since retiring from the game he returned to the club as part of our backroom staff, holding a position as masseur since 2009. Today we chat about how his career ended and his experiences since returning to Sunderland - did you miss part one of our conversation yesterday? If you did, make sure you catch it by clicking here.

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RR: Why do you feel that it didn’t work out for you at Manchester City?

CR: Leaving to go to City felt like the right thing to do at the time.

I felt wanted at Man City - I liked Frank Clark and their assistant manager had worked with Mick Buxton up here, so we got on really well. But, their left wing back got injured after about three games and I got put there to fill in and then ended up staying there for the next twenty games.

Truth be told, I left my heart at Roker Park. Once we left Roker, it just felt like that was it for me.

Clark got sacked and Joe Royle came in and I just didn’t really click with him.

I went on loan all over the place - Tranmere, Oxford and so on. My family never really settled there as they always felt like I was going to be up and on my way somewhere else on loan. I guess I just got homesick. People say you have to expect that as part of being a footballer, but I was a local lad and home was all I knew. I just felt like I was always just wanting to get back there.

RR: Are you proud of your former team mate Paul Stewart for bravely raising an issue as big as sexual abuse in football?

CR: Yes, Paul has been incredibly brave. He has shown immense courage given what he’s gone through - a lot of people could have unfairly judged him but he’s opened the door for others to come forward.

I would never have guessed he had suffered from abuse in all honestly - we had a dressing room full of characters, with him being one of the main ones. He was a right wind up merchant and he took no prisoners on or off the field. He was a tough, tough guy. He’s had to bury that and I know that won’t of been easy.

You just don’t know what happens when he gets home though, like everyone. Maybe football was his release. It takes a strong person to do what he’s done.

RR: You came back to the club as a masseur in 2009, a role you still hold - how did that come about?

CR: I was doing a lot of coaching for the Foundation when I got a shout from Lee Clark. He told me that Newcastle were looking for someone part time and when Sam Allardyce took over, I went there. I had applied to Sunderland but no one had got back to me regarding that, so it seemed to make sense to go there - it was good for the CV and that.

When Newcastle got relegated, I got a call from the club and they asked if I wanted to go work there. I was buzzing. I said “yeah, we’ll meet and talk it over, see what happens” but I knew I was going to take it.

Steve Bruce joined in the summer, and that was me finally back at the club.

RR: Who has been your favourite manager to work for since returning to Sunderland?

CR: Steve Bruce. I loved Brucey - he was absolutely brilliant. He knew his stuff too.

He's a really, really good bloke and he was building a good side here. He had to sell some players and I really feel if we hung on to one or two who went, we would have went from strength to strength. The players loved him, the people around the club loved him. He just really looked after everybody, he made it feel like a real family club.

I was gutted when he left - really gutted. Gus and his crew were great too, really nice guys. Martin O’Neill too, that run we went on where we won eight in about twelve games. If we had beaten Everton that night in the cup quarter final replay I honestly think we would have went all the way.

Yeah, I enjoyed working with those blokes – but I loved Brucey.

RR: What was Paolo Di Canio really like?

CR: Paolo came in with a lot of gusto. But, when it came down to it, results showed he could talk the talk but not walk the walk.

I’ve argued with a lot of folk of about this, but I feel like anyone could have managed the team at St. James that day and we would have won. I felt like he made it about him though, and it was a shame because it should have been all about how strong-minded the players were the day. The players were fantastic.

The next game though we scraped past Everton because Sess (Stephane Sessegnon) was on fire that day, as he was the week beforehand - Paolo just didn’t want him at the club from the beginning, yet it was him who was winning us the points.

I just felt it was all about him, and I’m a Sunderland boy who wants it all to be about Sunderland. The second season, it didn’t take a genius to work out that it didn’t go well and that the team wasn’t working under his stewardship. There was a lot of talk of a player’s mutiny, certain individuals and that kind of stuff, which most people seem to have felt happened, but it didn’t at all. It was just that the club acted fast to remove him and before it was too late.

You could see at West Brom the fans seemed to have lost some faith too. The club acted quickly, not the players. It was the right decision, because in six months we were at Wembley.

RR: Everyone remembers the bench celebrations after that last minute winner at St James - you were prominent in them! How good of a night was that?

CR: It was amazing! It was such an emotional drainer, I was shattered. It felt like I played the game. That drain from them taking the corner and panicking, thinking “oh God, don’t score now man”. Panty (Costel Pantilimon) made a great from Moussa Sissoko and then to feel that surge of adrenaline from us going up the pitch, and the goal going in - it was such a massive high and I was on cloud nine.

You can’t beat that. You can’t beat that.

RR: You played with Kevin Phillips - you’re part of the backroom staff now and see Jermain Defoe every day. Who is better? No sitting on the fence! Defoe or Phillips?

CR: (This had a good one minute pause) I’d go with JD. Simply because I would say, personally, he’s a better finisher - a more natural finisher, I’d say. JD is quality and he’s still scoring goals. He’s scored goals at a higher level too I suppose, if we’re honest. Like he scored numerous goals for England too, so as tough as a question that is, I’m going for Defoe.