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From the terraces to the changing rooms: Roker Report meets... Paul Thirlwell (part one)

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In the latest edition of ‘Roker Report meets..’ we talk to our former midfielder Paul Thirlwell. In part one we discuss the best players that he encountered, living out his boyhood dream of playing for Sunderland and THAT game against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light.

Paul Thirlwell
Paul Thirlwell, 1999-2000 season
Getty Images

RR: Hello Paul! Thanks for taking time out to chat with us here at Roker Report. We always start with a nice easy one. What is your SAFC XI from your time at the club?

PT: Tommy in goal, Makin at right back, I’ll go Micky on the left - even though I don’t like giving him credit for anything (laughs). I never actually played with Dickie Ord but I was in the squad with him and I really liked Ordy so I’ll have him next to Jody.

Midfield would be Buzzer on the right, Julio on the left, Bally and Alex Rae in the middle and the obvious two up front.

Paul Thirlwell’s SAFC XI shows just how many good players he played alongside.

RR: What was being a youth team player like at Sunderland in the mid nineties?

PT: It was better, in my opinion.

I wasn’t around the modern day Academy of Light, but I’ve been around a lot of academies in my career since. Everything has moved on of course with sports science, facilities and all that comes with it. When I was a young lad, though, it felt more like you had to earn it. Now it’s almost ‘too much too early’; you can be made to feel like a professional before you’re maybe ready. I didn’t see anything wrong with cleaning the shower room and the toilets! It was the stuff that made me want to work to be a full time professional footballer.

It created a better team culture. You were always around the pros then. You would get the tea’s and the coffee’s ready, clean the boots, sing them a song, wash their car; however embarrassing it may have been, it made you look up to them and created that bond between youth teamer and professional. You looked after them and they looked after you. Nowadays in the UK, you’ve got separate parts of the training pitch sometimes. The youths and the first team never really cross swords the way they used to.

If I had my time again, I’d do it exactly the same way I did it.

RR: You’re from Washington. Were you a Sunderland fan growing up? Were there any other clubs in for you when you were younger?

PT: I’ve lived all my life in Washington. My parents are from Seaham and we’ve supported the Lads all our lives. I’m a season ticket holder.

I was actually with Sheffield Wednesday from the age of nine till sixteen. I signed my apprenticeship with them.

Anyway, I went down and did my work experience with them in February, but something didn’t feel right. It wasn’t being away from home, it just didn’t feel comfortable for some reason. From there Sunderland showed a bit of interest. I did my YTS there and thankfully the club gave me the opportunity, which was great - it’s my team.

RR: You made your league debut against Tranmere Rovers, replacing captain Kevin Ball. What were you memories of running out onto the turf that day? Was it weird replacing a club legend like Bally for your debut?

PT: It was weird. You’re a season ticket holder one minute and the next minute you’re in the dressing room with the players you’ve been watching week in, week out. It’s hard to describe because there are so many emotions. You’re full of nerves of course, but as a player once you’re on that pitch you just concentrate on what you want to do.

When you get home it’s different because you can reflect and take it in. That’s when it hits.

Sheff Wed v Sunder X
Paul had been at Sheffield Wednesday as a youngster before being snapped up by his ourselves; his boyhood club.

RR: That season was incredible for the club, and although it was only a few games you actually played in, you were in and around the squad a lot. Just what is it that made that dressing room tick?

PT: It was old school; work hard, play hard. We had a similar team every week lining up. Quinny and Kev up top, Buzzer and Johnston on the wings - but you had likes of Dich and Bridgey pushing them hard every week. There was competition all over the pitch.

The drinking culture has changed now - but you would struggle to keep that lot in, it’s a struggle to get players out these days! It was done at the right times though. The players would get together and bond - it wasn’t about going out and getting lashed. The lads got on and well on and off the pitch. You know each lad had your back.

Reidy and Sacko created a great atmosphere. We had some quality players then too. If you add that all together, it’s obvious why we did so well.

RR: You may remember a certain game at home to Chelsea the following season! We had loads of injuries that day, yet went on to smash them 4-1. You played the full game. What went right for us that day and how do you remember it as a player?

PT: I found out on the Friday that Bally was struggling, so I didn’t know until 24 hours beforehand. It was my Premier League debut so after Sacko rang me to tell me I was starting, there was a moment of nerves - 45k fans at home to Chelsea... I was just thinking “I hope I don’t fuck this up!”.

It was all about the start though, wasn’t it? You want to make sure as an individual and as a team, the first thing you do is right - and we went one nil up in the first minute! Quinny and Kev were on fire that day, as were the whole team. That’s what it was all about, everyone working hard and having each others backs, no matter who was in the team.

To be 4-0 up at half time was just amazing. I knew where my Mam and Dad were sitting, so I gave them a little wave and they were sitting there smiling! They (Chelsea) had so many stars in their team, Desailly and so on - as a player and a fan, I don’t think many will forget that first half of football. It was a great day.


Join us tomorrow for part two. We discuss the disappointment of losing in an FA Cup semi final, being given the captain’s armband and Howard Wilkinson.