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"The Mags wanted to p**s on me!" - Roker Report meets... Gordon Armstrong!

After eleven years at the club - in a Sunderland career where he made 416 appearances - Gordon Armstrong, a life-long lads fan, has seen it all. We caught up with him to talk about his amazing career playing for the club that he always loved - and, of course, we couldn't help but mention that amazing night at Roker Park when we beat Chelsea, or the Newcastle play-off win at St James Park!



Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images

RR: You were born in Newcastle, but even as a young lad you were red and white through and through. Who got you into supporting the Lads?

GA: My Dad was a Sunderland fan and like most lads, you follow your Dad don’t you? I took plenty of beatings for it mind, so maybe it wasn’t the best decision! There were three lads who supported Sunderland in my school and we all took stick, but that’s the way it is.

RR: In 1985, you made your debut under Len Ashurst away at West Brom - did you ever think for a minute that would be the first of 416 appearances?

GA: There were quite a lot of injuries, so I got into the team. I actually played out of position at centre half - I went on and made another four appearances that season as well. The season after Lawrie McMenemy came in, and it took me a good six months to get back in the team.

I scored against Palace for him though and ended up staying in the side. I was only 17-year-old. It’s funny, I was talking to Martin Smith the other day and we were saying how players now don’t get their debuts till they are about 21 or 22, yet we’d have expected to have played 100 games by that point.

When you make your debut though, you don’t think like that (about how many appearences you’d make), not really, you just want to go out and do well. I was a lucky lad though, really lucky.

RR: Your first few seasons coincided with some horrible years under Lawrie McMenemy. Fans were pretty happy with the appointment at first, but why did it go so wrong under him?

GA: It wasn’t a good time, no. He tried to replicate what he did at Southampton, buying experienced players, which is what he had always done, really. I think he tried to convince Mr Cowie he could buy success, but it just didn’t work. It went completely the other way in the end.

He brought in Kennedy, Hetzke and that, they were good players, I just don’t think they could handle playing for Sunderland. It was a combination of stuff, he wasn’t a bad guy by all accounts.

Some of the players he brought in just weren’t good enough. I think if he had a younger assistant it might have worked a bit better - he bought players at the end of their careers. It was just a catalogue of errors, but that’s football isn’t it?

RR: Of course, as dark as those days were, Denis Smith did a terrific job in resurrecting the club to the top tier eventually. How good was he?

GA: Denis Smith was the best manager that I ever had. I enjoyed my best period under him. I had three or four really good seasons under Denis and probably played my best football under him.

He was just a good man manager. He was a really straight guy. You’d knock the door down for him, more than any other manager. He built a really good team spirit, we’d fight for each other. I scored about forty goals under him over three seasons, eight of them in the top league too. It was just a shame how it ended, but again, that’s football.

RR: During those years you were of course part of the squad that beat the Mags in the Play-Offs. Did Paul Hardyman actually try to kill John Burridge?

GA: He just totally lost it. He’s one of the nicest lads around, but he just lost it. He wouldn’t have done it on purpose.

It’s funny though, I saw a photo of that the other day and I’m the only one protecting him (Hardyman) - there’s about seven Newcastle players around him. I’m not sure what I would have done, mind!

RR: The return leg, of course, went down in Wearside folklore. How good was it being part of that performance?

GA: Brilliant. After all of the stick I took over the years - it was extra special for me really. It was in one of the Newcastle fanzines, I couldn’t tell you the name, but I was voted their most hated player. They had a photo of me in a urinal in Gosforth, where I’m from. They hated me that much, that they wanted to piss on me!

So yeah, beating them was pretty good! Afterwards all of the journalists, you know the likes of Alan Oliver and all that, they were saying how much they were going to hammer us after the first leg, in front of us as well. We went there under massive pressure, but we just turned up and done them over - we were the better team and won the game.

RR: When the 500 or so fans came onto the pitch, what were you all thinking?

GA: All we were bothered about was making sure the game was going to finish.

George Courtney (referee for the game) still talks about it when I see him, actually. I’m not sure how he was reffing the game to be honest because he was from the North East. We all just kept asking him if the game was going to be finish, and he just kept saying "this game is going to finish, I assure you". It didn’t bother me that they all ran onto the pitch, I could understand how you’d feel, losing a game like that at home.. you’d be sick, wouldn’t you?

RR: We went on to lose the Play-Off Final but ended up getting promoted anyhow. How did that feel as a player to get promoted because of Swindon’s financial irregularities?

GA: I remember Kevin Dillon came into the dressing room after we beat the Mags actually and had said Gordon McKeag had told him that whoever won that game (the derby) would be promoted because of the investigation with Swindon.

So yeah, it was a weird one. I was on holiday in Ibiza at the time with my missus when I found out. You had no mobile phones or nowt then so we were all calling back home. Whilst we knew that it wasn’t a decision that had anything to do with us, it was great to go up and excellent to play in the top division.

RR: Jumping a few years further forward, we couldn’t fail to mention the 1992 FA Cup run. What was it about that team that pulled those performances out the bag?

GA: We just had a good team. We had a good striker in John Byrne, a good goalkeeper in Tony Norman. Not long after Peter Reid came in, and I know it was a few years later but, he asked a few of the senior pros like myself what he felt the team needed. We all told him "not much". He looked at us like we were daft!

Although some of the lads from that run had left by then, we still had the nucleus of a good team from that period, it just hadn’t been consistent over the years, but the FA Cup squad was still good. Dickie Ord, Brace, Bally. Of course, as always, you needed luck and we had some of that too. The FA Cup was still special then, not like now.

RR: And most importantly, THAT header against Chelsea. Was that your best moment at the club?

GA: Individually yes, but the Mags win was better than that if I'm honest!

Roker Park night matches were always special - especially under the lights. Anyone who was there that night will tell you how special it was. It was just a really good game that could have went either way. After they equalised it was a bit gutting, but the way it ended was amazing.

It was an extra special night for me too because I heard someone chinned Dennis Wise and he got thrown out of the players lounge for being a prat. He’s a proper nark.

RR: You’re an agent now. How’s that life treating you?

GA: Yeah, it’s treating me really well. I’ve been doing it for about a decade. I was playing part time at Accrington Stanley, and whilst I had not long left Burnley and a few of the lads like Robbie Blake, Glen Little and Richard Chaplow asked me to look after them. My brother was at Sheffield United too so that sort of got me into it. I did my coaching badges and that, but I enjoyed this a lot more and I still really enjoy it.