RR: Obviously we went up and did really well. But at the start of that season you went to St. James Park for your first derby. Just how intense was it?
TS: It really is something you can’t prepare for.
In a normal game, you start your week at training, you prepare mentally and start looking forward to it, but with the derby it’s mentioned every week as soon as the fixtures come out! Everywhere we all went for the week before people would come up to us and mention how important it was. It takes on a totally different significance. Honestly, in terms of game preparation, it’s the first time I’ve had the feeling before a game. It was huge.
Add in the weather that night, which was chaos. I remember I was tense because of all I mentioned before. There was some nerves as I was coming into the ground and then out of the tunnel. That Kevin Ball tackle too...
RR: Honest question, did you think Kevin Ball’s tackle was going to go in as you saw it loop over your head?
TS: It was one of those things where everything slows down. It was all in slow motion. You’re just hoping it’s not going to go in, and parts of you think oh no, it’s going in. We can laugh about it today! But I think it just stuck in the water a little bit and it ended up pinging off the bar. Sometimes you get that little bit of luck.
It’s good to look back on now though, because it didn’t go in and it was such an important game and one that we won.
That was him though, that was Bally. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he’d never shy away from a good 50/50 tackle. Had it gone in, I still think he would of gone into similar tackles the week after. Typical Bally.
RR: On the subject of Derby games, we have to talk about THAT penalty save. How did you feel in the build up? And did it sink it what you had done?
TS: It’s funny, because as a player I’ve always been onto the next thing in the game. You can see afterwards I’m screaming to get organised for the corner, because if we had conceded from that it would of been worthless, but in this instance - I sometimes wish I had enjoyed it more. But that’s how I am.
I remember the build up to the penalty - everyone knew Shearer’s favourite was in the corner, so I thought shall I second guess him? Make him think he knows where I’m going (the corner). It became a little bit of one becoming cleverer than the other. I just had a feeling he’d change his pattern, and it worked.
People say it was a bad penalty, but my second guessing worked. There’s a lot of psychology in penalties and I got the better of him that day.
I remember after that game we had gone to Seaham Hall for a few drinks. There were five or six or us who had gone for a drink and some food. Anyway, the day after the barman told me a man had offered him £500 for the seat I had sat in after I had left (laughs)! It’s a funny story yes, but it shows you how important that game was to people.
RR: Unfortunately the club began to find themselves performing poorly on and off the pitch back in that 02-03 season - what are you memories of that campaign and what went wrong?
TS: It’s hard to sum up. There was a lot of things to be honest...the club lost that culture that was so important. We lost a few players that were paramount to the team and the character. Don Hutchison went to West Ham, Quinny retired, Alex went to Wolves - truth be told, we never replaced them adequately. Players like Tore Andre Flo came in, a lot of others too, but non of them could replace what we had lost.
Peter Reid obviously still stands as one of the greatest managers that Sunderland have ever had, but sometimes you just run out of ideas. It’s natural. Howard Wilkinson came in and was different to Peter Reid. Wilkinson just didn’t work. There was financials behind the scenes too.
It had started before that season. Losing the players, the culture had slowly disappeared. All of that culminated in that season.
RR: Even though we were relegated that season and you were in demand and still very much one of the best in the league, was it still hard to leave?
TS: It was hard because Sunderland was one of the best times in my career, it was one of the most important times too. Those first three seasons at the club meant so much for personally and professionally. I had grown to love the club, and I still do. It’s still a fantastic club.
Sometimes you have to make a hard decision. That’s what it was more for me, a very. very difficult decision. I had a meeting with Mick McCarthy about how we were both feeling and after that discussion I knew if I was staying, it would be like starting a new project and building from the bottom up again. The players and the culture we had were lost at that point. I had to put aside all the emotions I had that connected me to the club and look at the decision from a career point of view.
It wasn’t easy, but with everything that on with the club, I felt it was the right decision for my career.
RR: What was your SAFC career highlight?
TS: It would be hard not to shy away from that Shearer penalty, but I find it hard to pick just one instance, because that’s all it is, just one moment.
Probably the first season because of the level of success and what it did for me personally. It sat up my career and gave me a name in English football. It set my whole career up and that’s important. Both moments are equally important for those reasons.
But there are so many things. The atmosphere at the Stadium of Light back then was unbelievable and I don’t think it’s been replicated since, honestly. The passion of those fans and the following we had was fantastic, it was definitely something I loved about the club. That fanbase Sunderland have, it’s pretty special.
RR: Although you now live in Australia, have you been to any games at the SoL since you left Sunderland? What do you think of the current situation we found ourselves in?
TS: It’s hard to judge from outside of the club and being so far away. I’ve been in situations when everyone thinks there’s turmoil in the club and there isn’t at all. I just hope the club have a plan and stick to it, even if it isn’t going the way anyone wants it to right now. It’s hard for me to judge from the outside, but I hope they give Moyes time - IF they have a plan and structure in place. Because Sunderland with the fans, the stadium, the facilities - they have everything in place to be great again, but maybe it needs patience right now.
It’s hard to get back obviously! But when I’ve been back with Villa and Stoke it’s always a joy to come back, to hear the fans sing your name again. I’ve been back a few times to visit friends too. It’s always amazing to come back as a person and as a footballer because the people in Sunderland are so kind and warm. The fact they still sung my name makes me so proud.
Sunderland and the fans will always have a special place in my heart and I hope my at some point when I finish my career I’d like to go back and sit in the stands with those fans.