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Roker Report Meets... former Sunderland defender Neill Collins!

We talk promotion, bringing together McCarthy and Keane, the legend Niall Quinn and why David Moyes is the wrong man for Sunderland with our former defender Neill Collins.

Derby County v Sunderland Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

RR: We'll start with a nice easy one - what is your best SAFC XI from your time at the club?

NC: Thomas Myhre, Stephen Wright, Gary Breen, Steve Caldwell, George McCartney and Julio down the left, Dean Whitehead and Carl Robinson in the middle, Liam Lawrence, Marcus Stewart and Stephen Elliott.

Carl Robinson kept the ball well, and was neat and tidy. Gary Breen was a huge influence on my career - I played with him at Wolves too. You also had Marcus Stewart, who was such a professional. Stephen Elliott I played with at three clubs - if he wasn’t injured he could of done even more for us I think. Tommy Myhre as well, as young boy he gave me a lot of confidence - he really looked after us. Liam Lawrence was someone who was just great for the dressing room. All those lads were so close, we had a great team spirit.

RR: You went from part time at Queens Park as a 17 year old, to captaining Dumbarton at 18 - suddenly Mick McCarthy calls you up and asks if you fancy playing for Sunderland. How did that feel?

NC: It was strange. At that age you don’t take it all in. I was linked to all sorts of teams when I was at Dumbarton. Even teams like Manchester United and Arsenal. I went on trial to Rangers and Charlton, but when my agent told me that Sunderland wanted to take me on trial I thought, "wow, Mick McCarthy... huge club... I’ll go straight away".

The minute I got there and looked at the training ground, the stadium - I just thought "wow". I was signed on the basis of playing reserve football, seeing how I developed. I got into the team within three weeks, so it was a whirlwind.

In a sense, it helped me that I was so focused and I just didn’t even think about the step of going from University to playing football full time. I was aggressive, almost angry - I had a chip on my shoulder, like "I’m going to do this". I think Mick liked that.

RR: Mick McCarthy gave you a chance almost immediately. What was it like playing for him?

NC: Mick was the biggest influence on my career. He viewed me on what I was like as a player, not about where I was coming from. He wasn’t worried about where a player came from, just their abilities. It was the same for Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence, Stephen Elliott. It was all about ability.

The lads loved him. They would have ran through a brick wall for him. He’s a better manager than he’s given credit for. His record in the Championship is excellent. I have nothing but good things to say about him. I probably learned more from his management once I left the club - when I was older his advice just sunk in more.

RR: The team had a great mix of young and old that season in the Championship. What was it that worked so well?

NC: The young lads were all buzzing to be at Sunderland. They were hungry. We pushed the experienced lads who had been there and done it in training. The experienced boys though - Myhre, Stewart, Breeny - they would guide us and they could even put us in our place.

Mick has a great way of putting together a team spirit. I just think at that time it was the sort of team Sunderland needed. It was a shame, but when we got promoted and he didn’t have much money, you have to wheel and deal - it dilutes it a bit. It’s just tough.

RR: That Sean Thornton rap... what was that all about?

NC: We had a Christmas do in Dublin and he bust out this rap. He wasn’t that bad but he thought he was really good. I’m not sure he realised the joke was on him. Anyway, I said to one of the lads that we should start the Vanilla Ice tune because I knew Sean would take the bait. He did - hook, line and sinker. Sean loved it, he loved being the centre of attention.

He wasn’t like one of the those who would shy from it and refuse to get up and do it - he was right in there amongst it. That was funny.

RR: You missed the Leicester/West Ham game but played in the promotion party home game with Stoke. What are your memories of that day and the open top bus parade?

NC: Surreal. Even now I look back and think of how good it was. It’s really tough to win the Championship. Some teams struggle to just get out of it.

I am really good friends with Dean Whitehead and we had a chat a few months before the end of the season - we talked about what it would be like, as we were doing well. We were almost pinching ourselves. It was just amazing. Again though, as a young boy, you don’t take it in as much as you do when you’re experienced pro.

FA Cup: Sunderland v Northwich Victoria
Neill Collins scores the opener for the Lads against Northwich Victoria.
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

RR: You didn’t play for us at all in the Premiership - did Mick tell you that you were being loaned out? Did you ever feel aggrieved at not getting any opportunity in the team, especially when you consider the form of players like Alan Stubbs?

NC: The first season went really well for me. I played a fair bit and won a medal. The next season though it was established early on that I’d be going on loan. I did well in pre-season in America, but I always knew he’d go with Breen and Caldwell, then he signed Stubbsy, not forgetting Danny Collins.

The first season was great for me, I played a few games then was out for a few, which was perfect for me at that age. I went to Hartlepool and played 25 games and that period allowed me to play regular games, make mistakes and learn my trade. I really should have stayed longer (at Hartlepool) but Mick brought me back and played me in the FA Cup. I scored and played alright, but then got put in against Brentford where I didn’t play particularly well - the whole team didn’t. It was hard coming into a team with no confidence.

I then went off to Sheffield United and really enjoyed my time there. Again though I got called back. Kevin Ball was caretaker at the time, I felt at that time I deserved more of a chance - it felt like everyone was getting a shot. I got pulled out of the reserves on a Wednesday night before we played Manchester United on the Friday and I thought "great, I’m going to be involved" yet I didn’t even travel. I was devastated. But that’s football.

All in all though, looking back, I played 30 plus games that year so it wasn’t a bad year.

RR: Of course it was an awful season for Sunderland, but you got back in the team following that relegation. Then Roy Keane comes into the club - what did you think of Roy as a manager?

NC: I used to have Manchester United shirts with Keane's name on the back! He was my idol. But just before I go into that, let me talk about Niall Quinn a second. What a fantastic guy.

Niall Quinn is one of the classiest people I’ve ever met. Just... what a guy. I saw him at Jody Craddock’s testimonial and he came over and gave me a massive hug. As a chairman he had so much time for you. You could always pick up the phone and he’d do things for you other Chairmen just wouldn’t.

But as for Keane. He just had an aura, that presence. Something you can’t buy, something you can’t teach. That day he was in the crowd against West Brom, I wanted to show him what I was about, that I wanted to be part of his plan. The whole team did.

I was actually the first one to go and chap on his door. I was in the team that day against West Brom - I scored - then we signed all these players and I was out of the team against Derby. I was at the stage where I had worked so hard to get back into the team, I felt I had played relatively well. I came out of his office feeling a million dollars though - he just had something about him. He was very approachable. I got into the team the next game and we beat Leeds 0-3 and I felt top of the world.

He could be a little Jekyll and Hyde though and as a young player that was tough, but I really don’t have a bad word to say about him. He wanted me to stay, but I just thought I knew what I was getting with Mick (McCarthy) and I moved on.

RR: Your move to Wolves meant it was the first time Roy and Mick had spoken since the World Cup fall out. Was that a bit weird?

NC: It definitely was the first time they spoke! I knew Wolves were interested - so I thought it was going to be a problem.

One of the lads came down the stairs and was saying "Mick McCarthy has rang Roy, bloody hell!". Of course I knew what it was about. That’s the thing about those two though - they’re men. Honest, open, upfront and that’s what they like in people. They got on with it, sorted it and made the loan move. It was a good move for me in the long run.

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays Premier League
"He just had an aura, that presence. Something you can’t buy, something you can’t teach. "
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

RR: Finally, you’re living in Florida now and dabbling in some writing. How is the US treating you? What are your views on David Moyes and Sunderland from across the pond?

NC: It’s great, thank you very much. I love it, my family love it and so do the kids. The weather is amazing, it’s certainly warmer than Sunderland.

As for Sunderland - they need an identity. Look at clubs like Swansea, they aren’t as big as Sunderland but they’ve been known for playing a certain brand of football, it served them well. It’s tough to get players to the North East for some reason. I don’t know why, because it’s one of the best places to play your football - because of the fans, the crowd.

They need a strong, charismatic manager to lead that though. Someone with a bit of backbone. In terms of David Moyes, I don’t want to be over the top because he’s had a great career but I feel he’s a manager who’s had the stuffing knocked out of him. His time at Old Trafford and in Spain, he just seems like someone who’s ran out of ideas.

Basically Sunderland need to have a blueprint for what they want to achieve. From the boardroom - it needs to be someone making the right decisions. It has to come from the top.