RR: Thanks very much for taking the time out to speak to us first and foremost Stephen. I just wanted to start off by asking how the move to Sunderland come about, and what about us convinced you to uproot to join the club?
SE: At the time I was at Manchester City. I had just broken into the first team squad in the previous season and they offered me a two-year-deal.
The problem, though, was that they had Nicolas Anelka, Paulo Wanchope and Robbie Fowler at the time.
I thought, "am I going to get much game time?" - maybe, if I’d gone out on loan, but they didn’t want me to do that so I decided to leave. Celtic were after me, which was bizarre because Celtic are obviously massive in Ireland. I went up and spoke to them but as soon as I got to the Academy at Sunderland, I started to get a feel for it. Then I met Mick (McCarthy) and I knew him for what he’d done at Ireland, and he was probably the main reason I decided to come. He sat me down and told me his plans for the club, and not long after that conversation I made my decision - in fact, I made my mind up more or less straight away.
Something just felt right about it, and I’m really glad that it did.
RR: Despite starting your first season as, essentially, a backup striker, it wasn't long before you were in the team every week and scoring - why do you think things clicked into place so quickly?
SE: I spoke to Mick like I say, and I knew he wanted to blend in some of the younger boys. I had a massive hunger to do well; that’s why I left City.
I wanted to make a name for myself elsewhere.
They had Kyle and Stewart and I knew that they were maybe his first choice, but I wasn’t going to accept just sitting on the bench. I just trained really hard. As a young lad, you know, you don’t have any fear. I’d played reserve team football, but there’s only so many of those games you can play. You want the buzz of first team football.
Mick said to me if I played well, then I’d be in the team - that was all I needed, I had the hunger, it was the whole reason that I came.
RR: You scored the goal that won us the Championship in 2005 at West Ham, sending us back to the top flight. What are your memories of that pre-season - were you confident that we'd do well when we went up, or did you have an incline that we were going to massively struggle?
SE: To score that goal was one of my best memories in my whole career. There’s a few moments in football that really stand out; that was mine.
The away end was packed out. It was brilliant, I just remember the ball hitting the back of the net and the fans went off their bloody heads. It was such a good night on the way home too.
To be honest the pre-season was good, we all knew it was going to be tough, but we were more excited. The team was full of young boys who had never really played in the Premier League. You’re always confident. To be honest, I was gutted not starting the first game. The goals I’d scored, I thought I’d be given the chance to start the season and he played Andy Gray. I was sitting on the bench, thinking "what’s going on here?”.
I was injured a lot that season so it was difficult for me personally, but I really thought we’d compete more than we did.
RR: You struggled really badly with injuries that season in the Premier League - and, in turn, the team struggled on the pitch twice as much. Why do you think it went so badly wrong for us?
SE: It was so annoying being injured and watching it from the bench. We never really got hammered, it was always 1-0’s and 2-1’s. We just didn’t have enough quality, that’s the fact.
After a few games, there was a severe lack of confidence and you could feel it. It was difficult to pick the heads up. We had a lack of Premier League experience and a lack of quality.
Nyron is an example. He was brought in as a back up full back, but Stephen Wright got injured straight away - and Nyron was straight in. I’ll be honest, some of the lads were thinking, "who’s this lad? He can’t even kick a ball straight!" Nyron really improved over time though and had a great career at Sunderland - he really knuckled down.
The lads at the club really learnt from that experience as horrible as it was.
RR: How did the squad react to Alan Stubbs' behaviour, which ultimately led to him being released early from his Sunderland contract - were there hard feelings? Stubbs was infamously accused of celebrating an Everton goal whilst a Sunderland player in a game between the same sides - to your knowledge was that true and, if so, how did that go down?
SE: What? When he was playing for Sunderland? Did he? I actually didn’t know he did that. It was a weird one. He was one of the lads that actually should have brought some experience. He was past his best - but he did alright. To be honest, he was actually grand as a lad. Typical Scouser - came in and had a bit of craic, but it felt like he was here then gone in the same breath.
To be honest, you forget he played for Sunderland don’t you?
RR: What are your memories of scoring that goal at St James Park against Newcastle - just how did that feel?
SE: Obviously, we didn’t win but for me to score that goal... like I was saying before, you could go back to moments in your career, and that was one of my greatest.
I remember the build up to the game - it’s like a nervous energy. It was a crazy game, real end to end stuff. It was actually a really good game to play in.
But, when you see the ball hit the back of net... it was a great feeling.
I remember the last few minutes when I hit the bar, I managed to lob Shay (Given) and it pinged off the bar. I was already running off celebrating, and when it hit the bar I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I could see the Newcastle fans giving me some v-signs. I don’t think we deserved to lose that game, but it was just like that all season.
Most teams just had that little more quality than us.
Join us back here tomorrow for part two of our interview with Stephen Elliott!