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Roker Report meets... Alex Rae! Part One: Playing at Roker Park, Alcoholism & the 1998 Play-off final

Alex Rae is a man who will always be loved by the Sunderland supporters - players of his ilk just aren't about these days. He could do it all on the pitch and he wore his heart on his sleeve. We sat down with the former Mackem midfield maestro to talk about his career on Wearside - you can catch the second part of this interview tomorrow.

Kevin Phillips

RR: First and foremost Alex, thanks for sitting down and chatting to Roker Report. Nice easy one to start - what would be your best eleven of players from your time at Sunderland?

AR: Tommy Sorensen, Makin, Mickey Gray, Melville, Stevey Bould, Bally, McCann, Summerbee, Allan Johnston, Quinny and then Kevin Phillips.

RR: You came to the club in 1996 whilst we were still at Roker Park. Living in London at the time, what convinced you to make the move up?

AR: I’d been at Millwall for six seasons, so it was an easy move to make, to be honest. There were one or two times, I think it was Denis Smith - guys like that - who had tried to get hold of me before, so there was always a link with Sunderland. The fact I was only two and a half hours away from Glasgow so I could get up and watch Rangers was a factor also. Plus, I knew the North East was always so passionate about the game. I used to hate it before I moved actually. It was always so hostile.

RR: You actually made your debut against Newcastle in the final derby at Roker Park, but you spent the majority of your time on Wearside at the SOL. Which did you prefer, and why?

AR: I was suspended at the beginning of my first season because I got sent off in my last game at Millwall. To be honest, the first two seasons for me at Sunderland was a waste of time, because I wasn’t really living my life all that well.

In answer to your question - 100% the Stadium of Light, because Roker Park was falling to bits. Having to share a bath that hadn’t been cleaned for about one hundreds years wasn’t great, especially when you consider we signed lads like Nicky Summerbee and Makin. That wouldn’t have been great if we were still at Roker then because they weren’t the cleanest f**kers! It was no big issue for me to leave the place, even though the atmosphere was brilliant. Like I say, it wasn’t the best few years for me then because of how I was living my life.

Sunderland v Man Utd X

RR: In the BBC documentary, Premier Passions, there were some pretty entertaining moments on camera from Reidy and Sacko. Was the dressing room always like that? Do you feel Bobby Saxton gets the credit he deserves for his work in that period?

AR: I was there five seasons, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed since I’ve gone into coaching and Management - you need all those ingredients in the dressing room. As much as Reidy was funny - there was a fear factor, most of the boys were shit scared of him. Then you had Sacko who was old school. You had a bunch of boys who were buying into the infrastructure of it all.

We used to break it down into five battles for the match day. You had Johno and Mickey Gray, Summerbee and Makin on the other side, me and whoever was in the middle, then the boys up top. It was a case of the more of those battles you win individually; the more likely you are to get a result. That marinated into a team bond - a team ethic. It was a really strong formula you had at the time. That went over into the management too. Reidy as the disciplinarian, Sacko the old school coach.

RR: The season later we were phenomenal after a tough start and it all culminated in that breathtaking play off final - a great game for the neutrals, but as a fan it was draining. How was it as a player?

AR: Everyone has a different perspective on certain events. We went to Bournemouth near the end of the season, around March-April time, for a jolly up as such. Some of the boys went to the horses, others went to the pub. Unfortunately, I took it to the extreme. The game after I got sent off against Charlton - Reidy came in and said "that’s it! You’re f**ked! You’re finished here". It was really sad to be honest, because I had been playing a lot of games. So at this point, I thought I was finished because Reidy very rarely gave you more than one chance.

So anyway, I came onto the pitch late in that play-off final game. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my career. For some reason, there were just little individual mistakes in that game - ones we hadn’t made all season really - that cost us. To concede four goals in that manner was just poor.

I had number 13 on my shirt that day and I had a history with Charlton - playing for Millwall I had been sent off a few times against them. So, I’m stepping up to take the penalty and I’m just thinking "if I miss this, there’s no way I can go in and face the boys". It was a shite penalty though, just sneaking under the keeper, but it went in. It was disappointing, but it gave us the opportunity to do what we did the season after.

RR: The season after, we just blew that division away, but there was a period you had to take time out because of your alcohol problems. You very bravely sought out help at that time and went to rehab. How hard was that period for you and how supportive was Peter Reid and the team during that period?

AR: I was going mad at the time - I was off the planet. My lifestyle just wasn’t good. The saving grace for me was the support I received from Reidy and the club. It was great, that group of boys rallied around me when I came out of The Priory. My first game back, I was warming up and I remember the fans were cheering me on the touchline. I thought something was happening in the crowd, but it was for me. That support from everyone was brilliant.

Spending that time in The Priory just gave me time to get some clarity about my lifestyle at the time, because it can get tiresome, it catches up on you. By not doing that, it gave me a total lease of energy. It gave me an unbelievable boost of energy.

I’m so pleased I got the opportunity to change that life I was living. It could be me saying "I could of been a contender", and had a few regrets, but I didn’t have to say that, I had a good career. I remember the open top bus parade. There were a few lads at the back of bus enjoying some beers, but I just kept watching the fans and what was going on, soaking in all those people that had come to see us. A few months beforehand, that could of been me sitting at the back of the bus drinking and it would have been a shame because that day was one of the best of my career and I got to soak it all in.

Join us back here tomorrow on for part two of our interview!

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