I first started going to matches in about 1993, so I remember just about every game you played in, but I wanted to talk about your first one - Luton Town at Roker Park. You scored a free kick - as a local lad, what was it like to not only run out at Roker, but to score as well?
It’s hard to put into words to be honest mate. I’ve got the DVDs of the games and that now and all I can think about when I look back is I didn’t even do a big celebration. But aye, it was just something I’ve always dreamed of. I always wanted to play at Roker. It all you dream of. I still remember the free kick. 19th minute - it was class like. Having a young lad on free kicks... it's just not something that’s done, you know?
I managed to just stick it straight in. Butch gave me my debut and I got a decent run in the team under him, but it just never worked out. He signed Phil Gray and Andy Melville etc but he was gone after seven games.
In an admittedly dark time for us, you were seen as a leading light. Did you ever feel the pressure being a local lad and a beacon of hope under managers like Butcher and Buxton?
Not really. It never really occurred to me. I was just so young that I didn’t think about it. Looking back, personally everything went well. I was getting in the team, the lads at the club just seemed to give me instant respect.
In the dressing room the lads seemed to looked to me for their inspiration, they’d be like "you gonna give us something today?" They knew I had that bit of quality in me and I could go and win a game. I honestly never felt pressure because of that, we had some really good pros and management staff who believe in me.
When Reidy came in though, it was other way around. I just felt like he never believed in me. I remember I scored against Swindon, Bolton and West Brom in that seven game run towards the end of the season that kept us up. I scored at the weekend in one them and the following Easter Monday, I was dropped. I just never thought he rated me, so it was like added pressure.
Only a few years after your debut for the lads, you got called to the England U21s squad. I went with my Dad to that one and I remember the reaction you got - did you expect it? And did it effect you?
Ah mate, it never really affected me at all. It really didn’t bother me. I was playing for England Under 21s, so I couldn’t care less what they thought.
I didn’t care if they didn’t like me, because I didn’t fucking like them either! So nah mate, no. I remember when Townsend played at the Stadium for England the other month and he got booed, I remember just thinking it was easier to just not acknowledge them, it doesn’t bother most fans, but for the families taken their kids to see the national team, it felt a bit unfair for them, so I’d just not acknowledge them.
It’s England afterall. Booing a player always seemed a bit silly, because we are used to abuse, we’re footballers!
In the same season, Reidy came in with seven games to go and if I remember correctly you bagged a few after he came in, we then went and won the league with pretty much the same team. What was it that Reidy brought to the team?
In a word, discipline. Everyone just knew where they were meant to be. It was 4-4-2, two wingers, a big man and a little man. Mind you, if you didn’t do it, you fucking well knew about it. I think that was probably the difference.
He knew what he wanted and he demanded it from you. He’d take no crap, but he also built up a great team spirit from it. He genuinely really cared. He had mountains of passion. Bobby Saxton was great aswell, totally character.
He was like one of the lads was Bobby, but wasn’t at the same time? Like, he was an absolute scream, really, really funny but you wouldn’t cross him either. It was just respect. We all went out at least once a month and build a proper bond. We did all sorts of stuff together. It just kept building and building that team spirit.
Even though I didn’t play as much as I wanted, it was still a great place to be. I used to love turning up, everyone just got on.
Every young player has an experienced professional who looked after them who they owe a deal of gratitude too. Who was yours?
None really, to be honest, but that was because we had so many good pros at the lclub. They all looked after you.
I would say I had players that I looked up to. You know the likes of Gordon Armstrong, Dickie Ord, Owersy. When I was younger Johnny Byrne was a good lad as well, I used to play with him sometimes in the reserves and he was always spot on. They were all dead helpful though to be honest. Good pros the lot of them, brilliant for advice and encouragement.
I was talking to Darren Williams about that Reading game when we lost 4-0. We went on a brilliant run after the game. You scored a lob against Huddersfield in the game directly after it as we won 3-1 - what happened in the dressing room after that Reading game?
Bloody Hell, that Reading game. I remember we had loads of players injured. It was me and Mullin up front. We got trounced aswell. Was it the Huddersfield game after that? I kept my place after that Reading game? I played down at Stoke the week after as well I remember. Three games in a row under Reidy! That’s unusual.
Aye, I remember that lob, it was just before half time I think and then they went and scored in first half injury time. I remember thinking I wasn’t going to get a bollocking because I’d scored, that put pay to that. I think it was Paul Dalton. I barely had time to celebrate!
But aye, we went on to win 3-1. Bridgey scored and I think it was Clarkey got the last one.
It was just attitude and belief in our ability as Darren said. We had a sit down and it was like "look, we are going to get beat like that again, we can’t get beat like that again". He changed the team around a bit, brought in Jody and Daz at the back, Darren Holloway. Johnston and Summerbee on the wings, but he didn’t change how we played. It was still 4-4-2, similar game plan. It was just all about the belief in ourselves and the team spirit we already had.
The season afterwards we stormed the league, but we had a settled side and you couldn’t get in the team - do you ever regret leaving?
I was fit all season and didn’t get much of a look in to be fair. I mean, I wasn’t complaining, I knew how good Johnston and Summerbee were and then Kev and Quinny up top were just phenomenal.
I remember a game against Grimsby, I played right wing and got two goals because Summerbee was injured and then I got man of the match. Midweek, we played at Everton in the cup, I went on and played well and scored a penalty in the shoot out then got dropped next game.
Later in that season I went and scored against Port Vale and again got man of the match but then got dropped straight away. I knew how good the lads ahead of me were but it was kind of a warning sign. I knew I had to go really.
At the end of the season, Reidy came in and just said "tell me when you want and I’ll offer you it" and offered a new contract. It had been like that for few years, in the team and then out the team. He’d convinced me to stay loads of times.
I’m a Sunderland lad, I loved playing for the club but I just had to go. As soon as I left after a month at Sheffield United, I realised I should have went earlier. I didn’t realise how much confidence I had lost. I just sat and thought 'fuck me, I wasted the last two years of my career stagnating'.
Not that I ever felt I wasted time at Sunderland, but just realised there and then how much I had lost my confidence in my ability because of the situation at Sunderland. It was the best thing I did because I went to do really well at Sheffield United and really got my confidence and career back on track. Saying that though, it’s a hard thing to say as I never wanted to leave Sunderland in my heart of hearts - it’s my club.
Playing for Sheffield United, you got a goal at Castle Greyskull, and we all remember the 1-2 gesture. How much did you enjoy that?
Yup - one of the best goals I’ve ever scored anarl!
It was the FA Cup and we went 1-0 down and I equalised with it. It was a really good goal and I let them know I was happy with it. Then, they went and scored just before half time and they were giving it "Mackem, what’s the score, Mackem, Mackem what’s the score?" and I was thinking to myself "Here fuck this, three weeks ago we went and beat them 1-2 and I was there in the rain celebrating it" and gave them the 1-2. Some of them were trying to jump over the barriers to get me, but I just kept remembering Kev chipping into the top corner in the rain.
I was there, class night that was.
You get the Son of Pele craic still; do you know where the nickname came from?
It followed me even to my other clubs. The lads at Northampton and that would call me it. Players would call me it!
It just sort of stuck. I get SOP (as in the letters SOP) now and again too. I think it was an ALS thing. They had started to print the shirts and what not, they wanted a slogan and I went and got that and it stuck.
(GMc: It was at this moment I gave in and told Smithy I still own one of the originals and I bought the reprinted one, giving away my fanboy status.)
Where do you see the lads going next season under Big Sam? Who would you try and sign?
I’d like to think we’d keep what we have already and just add little bits to it.
We look good for next season. Honestly, the way we came together after the signings Sam made, I fancy us for a top half finish, with that team and the way we started to play.
I’d like to think he’ll be given money to spend. He seems to only really be looking at a striker. You’d take Dzeko, although I think that’s just a cover up for other clubs to know he’s available, or Sakho. He likes a big man, so I can see him looking up front first. I’d look at a winger and I think he probably will.
I’d sign M’Vila too. He was great all season, and even though he tired a bit, he came back at the end just as good. As far Jan Kirchhoff, I’ve never been so wrong about a player. He was the best player we brought in in January, an absolute revelation. I mean there was points where he looked like he could play with a pipe and slippers. Kone too - everyone Sam brought in deserves a mention.
I just hope with money he’ll follow it up with even better signings. If he doesn’t go to England... I worry a little about that... he better not go to England.