RR: First of all, for all Sunderland fans who may not have encountered your books, could you give us a quick elevator pitch?
GA: They are books for Sunderland fans written by writers who have been steeped in Sunderland for decades. TFTR&W was always envisaged as a three-volume series for your bookshelf and this is Volume 2.
Volume 1 was a personal take by former players and writers on some aspect of their career, or the club. Vol 2 tells the stories of 11 players, each fitting into their traditional position: goalkeeper, right-back, left-back etc, united only by variety and the fact they played for SAFC.
Some played a handful of games, some played 100s and between them, the players span more than 50 years of club history. There’s something for everyone.
RR: Volume two is eleven stories from eleven former Sunderland players, as opposed to those involved in the media, what is the thinking behind the change in format?
GA: The idea came from our publisher, Tales From’s Director, Adam Leventhal, and the writers ran with it.
Having accepted the idea, the challenge then became making the stories sufficiently different from each other - which is why you have players from different eras and players with very different experiences of their time at the club.
Stan Anderson joined Roker Park in the 1950s, Stephen Elliott left the Stadium of Light in 2008; Gordon Armstrong played over 400 times for the club, Tony Coton barely a dozen times.
RR: Why were these eleven players chosen?
GA: No particular rhyme or reason.
No disrespect to any of the players involved, but we purposely didn’t want to go down the ‘best XI’ route, or the fastest, or the hardest, or the longest-serving for that matter.
We just wanted players who we thought had interesting stories to tell. We tried to fit them into their traditional positions as much as possible but it wasn’t always easy - Stan Anderson, for example, was a wing-half, a position which doesn’t exist in a 4-4-2.
We also had to put Darren Holloway at right-back: “Unbelievable,” he said. “Even in a book, I’m being played out of position!”
RM: Part of the reason for many of the choices was that their stories hadn’t previously been told in any depth and this was a good opportunity for supporters to perhaps find out things about these players that they hadn’t previously known. Equally, for the players it has been a chance to let people know how things happened from their points of view. It is often the case that players who did well at the club did not want to leave.
RR: And of the eleven featured, which do you feel had the most interesting story to tell?
GA: That’s not for us to judge - we’ll leave it to readers.
Probably some fans will enjoy reading about footballers they used to watch from the terraces, but then the same chapter might also appeal to supporters who never saw that player play and want to know more about someone they’ve previously only heard about.
With each player, we looked to get views or experiences that they would not normally have talked about before. That way, even if the name is familiar, their particular story might not be.
RR: How about any stories you may not have been able to print, is there anything in addition that has been left out of the final work that you can share?
GA: Some stuff had to be left out for legal reasons, simply because there are two sides to every story, but we go as far as we can. Other stuff had to be omitted simply because with almost every chapter there was too much material to squeeze in.
Martin Scott had some interesting things to say about his brief time spent playing for Brian Clough, for example, and Tony Coton could have written a book purely on his decade at Man United, but we had to focus on Sunderland matters as much as possible, so whatever players did in their careers away from Wearside tended to be written about less.
RR: Nine of these players are even featuring at the live event held at the SoL to launch the book, how is that shaping up, and have you got anything you’d like to add regarding the event?
GA: There’s a lot of talk about value for money in football these days but to get a free book, a free drink and the chance to get it signed while rubbing shoulders with the players it’s about - all for £20 - is as good an offer as you’re likely to get.
Tickets for the launch event at the Stadium of Light on Friday, November 17, the night before the home game against Millwall, are selling well but there are places still available – you can buy them here bit.ly/TFTRW2LIVE.
RR: Are there any other players you missed out on who you’d love to have been involved?
GA: For each position, we had at least four players we could have opted for.
We’re lucky that over the years we’ve built up so many good and trusted relationships with players that we had no end of numbers we could have called. In the end, we simply chose players who we thought had interesting stories to tell across a wide number of years.
RR: In terms of content, how much does the book itself actually differ from the first volume?
GA: Vol 1 was a mix of fans, journalists and players. This book is purely players.
The same honesty and openness from the contributors that you saw in Vol 1 is repeated in Vol 2, but the footballers are talking specifically about their own time and experiences at the club, about their own position on the pitch and how they fitted into the team or got on with team-mates and managers.
RR: Can you offer our readers a sneak peek of any entertaining stories from the players that are included?
GA: It was interesting that one player’s debut was so bad that his family refused to talk to him afterwards. At least two of the players, when told of Sunderland’s interest, said: “I’m not going!” Tony Coton revealed who “was the bane of Kevin Ball’s life”. One of the players picked up the phone to ring Wolves and accept their transfer offer but was astonished to find himself saying: “Sorry but I’m going to Sunderland.”
And Stephen Elliott lets us know which player was teased mercilessly for being Roy Keane’s best mate.
RR: Stan Anderson and Vic Halom are two names that stand out from far back in our history, did they offer anything for a few of our older readers to reminisce upon?
LH: Stan played at Sunderland during the rise and fall of the Bank of England club. He offers an interesting take on Alan Brown, a name that continues to divide opinion nearly 50 years after he left the club. Any Sunderland fan who did national service will appreciate what Stan had to do to keep his place in the first team at that time and he shares nice memories of playing alongside both Shack and Cloughie at Roker Park.
RM: Anyone old enough to have seen Vic Halom will know that as well as being a tremendous centre forward he was one of the greatest and funniest characters you could wish to have representing the club.
Over and above all this, Vic has a fascinating family background with parents from central Europe and a grandfather killed in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Vic only spoke German at home until he was five, and after many years living in Bulgaria he has returned to live in Sunderland as it feels where he is most at home. Vic was born in Burton upon Trent, but has a genuinely deep feeling for Sunderland and the club’s supporters. He has even put his cup final shirt, tracksuit top and various other items on display at the Stadium of Light as he strongly feels this is where they should be so supporters can see them.
RR: Here’s a few for Rob: just how much are you involved with the club now on a day-to-day basis since March, and what happened with the club?
RM: I left my full time employment with the club in May on the day of the final home game against Swansea. I have since moved to Scotland, but still travel down to home games, usually coming down on the Friday to see people and do jobs around the stadium or at the academy. I am still the club’s official historian and contribute to the programme, but I am no longer the programme editor. I answer various queries on behalf of the club on most days via email.
RR: In addition, are you worried about the decline in printed word in media today, and do you think this could affect the club’s programme?
RM: Anyone interested in print media knows that we are in a time of change. Personally I would always prefer to read a newspaper, book or magazine rather than something on a screen, but I realise that people once wrote on slates at school and time does move on!
With regard to how this affects the club programme I would have answered this last season, but now I think you would need to ask the club how it thinks the programme is affected.
RR: Lance. Stokoe, Sunderland and '73 is one of my favourite books on the history of the club, just how does working on Tales From differ from your previous work?
LH: Thanks. Well, I worked on Stokoe, Sunderland and '73 for years before I even signed the book deal and it was a further three years in the making from that point so obviously it's hard to compare it with anything else I have done. But I suppose Tales from the Red & Whites comes closest for obvious reasons.
This volume has been written by three friends who have huge respect for each other professionally, so that's also unique and very special. My approach has been the same in terms of the interviews, and meeting childhood heroes like Tony Towers, for example, and writing the definitive story about his time at Sunderland still means a lot. A part of me goes back to my childhood when I sit down for a few hours with those guys. You just can't buy that!
RR: Graeme, you interviewed Tony Coton for the book, who could provide arguably the most interesting story after his injury and fall-out with the club for whom he played only 12 times for, how did he feel in general with regard to his time here?
GA: He loved his time here and was saddened by the way it ended.
I chose Tony because I covered the club at the time and was intrigued at the way that once he got the injury, he simply disappeared off the public radar. I wanted to know about that time in his life. He also left under the radar too when it emerged the club hadn’t insured him against injury and he wouldn’t be receiving a payment. It ended up going to the High Court.
RR: Finally, what are each of your thoughts on Sunderland’s current predicament both on, and off the pitch, and where do we go from here?
GA: It’s heartbreaking.
I’ve reported on the 19-point and the 15-point relegations and those catastrophic demotions sucked the life out of the club each time. This somehow feels worse though.
Even worse than the pain and the rage and the anger that fans have gone through though is what seems to be in danger of coming now: indifference. Indifference, even among once die-hard supporters.
LH: Due to working abroad, I have only been to one match this season (Cardiff City at home) but what struck me was a sense of apathy that I have not experienced at the Stadium of Light before, even in those 19-point and 15-point seasons Graeme mentions.
If I go back far enough, I can remember a similar feeling in 1987 under Lawrie McMenemy and, to a degree, the early to mid 1990s under Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton. But this feels worse.
So, for anyone who wasn't around in 1986-87, what we do now is we keep the faith and hope that there is a brighter tomorrow (and a Marco Gabbiadini coming round the corner). Realism has taken its time to arrive - but it is very much here now. We desperately need an injection of positivity. Survival is the immediate target. To finish on an optimistic note, the 1973 Cup win and the Reidy years both happened following days like these...
RM: Through the good times and the bad I’ve always just watched and taken it all in. Football success works in cycles and at the moment Sunderland are at the foot of the cycle. To experience the highest highs you have to endure the lowest lows. That’s why modern day supporters who follow fashionable teams never match the quality of support Sunderland have. Sunderland supporters have had too many of the lowest lows but when a high point comes around they certainly know how to make the most of it. I’ve been at every relegation match other than the first a couple of months after I was born in 1958 and I’ve also been at all the promotion games other than the one when I was six in 1964. As an eight-year old when I saw my first game in 1967, Sunderland were 4-0 up in half an hour and won 7-1. I quickly learned that sadly it wasn’t like that every week.
I agree with Graeme that last season was worse than the 19 or 15 point seasons. I’d even say that in some respects it was worse than the relegation to the third division. This was because other relegations have been relegation battles and I didn’t see enough battling from enough players last season.
Simon Grayson is addressing the issues of desire and commitment. Inevitably he is going to make some decisions that bamboozle people as every manager does, but if he isn’t shopping at Harrods you can’t expect Harrods quality. In the meantime I’m for getting behind the bloke and giving him the time to at least make us better than we are now. I know that at Ipswich for instance it looked like marking opponents was not allowed, but chopping and changing the manager won’t help if he has the same players.
I am pleased to see young players being given a chance and would like to see more. I’d like to see Ethan Robson, Elliot Embleton, Josh Maja and James Talbot brought in. Not necessarily all at once, but sooner rather than later. If they’re not good enough, well let’s find out. Darren Holloway, Shaun Elliott, Stan Anderson and Gordon Armstrong from those in Tales from the Red and Whites Volume Two all came through the youth system, and I always like home grown players in the side.
Thanks to Lance, Graeme and Rob for their time, and as a reminder, you can buy tickets for Tales From the Red & Whites Live here: bit.ly/TFTRW2LIVE.