RR: Hi Paul, thanks for chatting with Roker Report. We always start with a nice easy question. From you time at the club, who would be in your best SAFC XI?
PS: No problem! It has to be TC (Coton) in goal, Ordy and Meville at centre back. Scotty left back. Dariusz used to get some criticism, but he was a good right back. In midfield I’d have little Mickey on the left, Martin Smith on the right. It has to be Bally in the middle alongside Steve Agnew - I liked Aggers in the middle.
Obviously Quinny up front. I’d like to think I’d get a game, but I probably wouldn’t! I’d have to choose Kevin Phillips. I left around the same time he came, so I can use him I think! Bridges was a very talented young lad and I suppose I did actually play with him. I’d get on in maybe the last ten minutes if we’re struggling to score a winner...then I’d wake up!
RR: You arrived at the club on loan originally back in August 1995. What are your memories of joining the club, Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton?
PS: It was a bit stop start. I came in on loan and injured my knee ligaments against Ipswich in a tackle with Geraint Williams. Initially I came in to play midfield. I had struggled at Liverpool in all honesty. The move to Sunderland was one that I was really looking forward to, then it was over almost as soon as it began - I went back to Liverpool very dejected.
I was on the scrap heap really. I had been on loan at a few different clubs and I saw this club as a huge opportunity. I wasn’t looking after myself before that though, in all honesty.
RR: How did the permanent move come back around? Was that always the plan?
To be fair to Reidy and Sacko, they kept it touch with me all the while, looking at my progress and making sure I looked after myself - which was one of my biggest downfalls.
When I got fit again, they decided to bring me in as a striker. They felt young Russell needed help up top, someone to help take the weight off the back four for him. I suppose I was the perfect fit; I was a free transfer and available. I thought I did a good job at the back end of that season; we did the job, we got promoted. I felt like it was a good move for Sunderland, but most importantly it was a good move for Paul Stewart.
As I was saying before, I was out in the wilderness and it was like Sunderland was almost my last chance saloon. My head just wasn’t right. Moving to Sunderland meant I worked really hard on my fitness, got myself back into shape and got my head down, which was important for me and the club.
RR: Obviously we went on to win the league that year after being on the cusp of relegation the year before. What was it about that team spirit towards the end of the season?
PS: It was amazing. There was nobody that didn’t get on - that was part of Peter Reid’s philosophy. It meant if you had lads that got along off the pitch, they'll go that extra mile for each other. No disrespect to any of the lads at the club, but when you have that atmosphere at a club, you can get away with lack of ability sometimes.
I’m a firm believer - as was Reidy - that if you have a good dressing room, a set of senior professionals it really helps. We had a laugh of course, but when we trained, we trained - the key was we worked hard at both! In those days, you weren’t allowed to go missing if you had that manager - it’s totally different now.
RR: My first ever away game was a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal when we only had nine men. Do you remember that sending off? It was ridiculous!
PS: Sent off for being pushed in the back! Paul Danson was the referee and he plagued my career. He always managed to find a card for me somehow; he got me the season later when I was at Stoke. To be fair, I probably gave referees more stick than most! That was the game then though.
Both sending’s off that day were atrocious - it was one of the worst refereeing displays I’ve ever seen. He should have been relegated to the Northern Prem! Reidy got sent off as well. He was handing out cards like confetti. We were holding our own against a very good Arsenal side before the red cards and every point in the Premier League is so precious, so it was really frustrating.
RR: I remember some of the Arsenal players even shaking their heads at the red card...
PS: Paul Merson said during his post-match interview on Match of the Day he felt sorry for me! If the opposition are saying that, it just shows you. Paul Danson plagued me though. When I went to Stoke the season later he was giving decisions that were unusual and it was likely because it was me. I came with a reputation, which probably didn’t help, but I really felt like he had it in for me.
RR: I’ve heard some great stories about you and Tony Coton being a pair of wind up merchants. What was the best prank you pulled?
PS: Bally was the easiest to wind up because he was the ultimate professional.
If we were playing away, we’d have the club tracksuit and two polo shirts. One to travel in, the other for the game. One red, one white. We’d have a meeting on Friday before the game where we’d be told where we are meeting the next day, when we are meeting & what colour shirt we were wearing. If Reidy said “white to travel down in” I’d reiterate it back to the lads - “don’t get it wrong lads, remember we’re wearing white tomorrow!” - and that was the sign to wear the opposite colour. Bally would turn up on the morning in the opposite colour polo with steam coming out of his ears. It was just so funny to see him like that because he was so professional.
We used to wind up him on the way down; “how did you get it wrong Bally? You’re the ultimate professional!” which just made it worse, especially as Reidy was pissing himself down the front of the coach. But to go back to your earlier question about team spirit - that’s what that was all about.
I’m not sure if he knows it was a prank to this day; we never told him! We used to let him go to bed thinking he’d lost his marbles.
RR: You played in some big games at Roker Park, including the last game against Everton - where you scored. What was it like to play at Roker and hear the Roker Roar? Do any games stick out?
PS: The Everton game, of course. It was the last league game and I scored. Roker Park was imposing - you don’t get that type of atmosphere anymore. A ground like Roker Park gave you an extra man. As an away player, you’d go to take a throw in and your ancestry, your parenthood and everything else would be questioned.
I believe for the supporter in general, that match-day has been lost. Stadiums are much more grandular, but they’re not as intimidating. People say at Arsenal that the Emirates is like a library, but if you remember Highbury used to be loud, especially its north bank. Even New Wembley without the twin towers has lost something.
I don’t want to live in the past though, you move with the times and things move on, however I’m sure supporters and players of my era would say that places like Roker Park were intimidating as an away player or they’d lift you as a home team; it’s definitely not like that now, it’s a shame those days seem to have been lost.
RR: Do you remember the home and away fixtures against Newcastle that year, where no away fans were allowed?
PS: I’ve been fortunate to play in a lot of derby games during my career and each one has it’s own qualities. The sheer dislike between Sunderland and Newcastle steeps from the first born all the way to great, great, great grandparents. You look at Liverpool and Everton fans sitting together, but you would never get that at Sunderland vs Newcastle. Each derby has its own quality and that was the North East derbies quality, that intensity from the sheer dislike of each other.
We should have won the away game; we battered them.
RR: We lost the home game; do you think that there was less pressure with no away fans there to watch?
PS: No, I wouldn’t say it was that. I go back to Peter Reid’s philosophy on team spirit. He brought players to the club not just on footballing ability, but he also brought players that he knew would add something to the team off the pitch too. He had this knack of getting an extra mile out of you, but he knew what you would add to the dressing room.
RR: I couldn’t leave out the unfortunate relegation you suffered in your final season. Obviously it was disappointing, but what was said in that dressing room when you realised Coventry had delayed the kick off?
PS: We didn’t know that Coventry were going to do what they were going to do, Wimbledon was a very tough place to go anyway without that happening. They were another team that had a solid spirit. I remember the game well because I missed a sitter.
At the time, did I think it was unfair? Yes. I don’t think it would happen now, and it shouldn’t do.
RR: How would you sum up your time at Sunderland?
PS: I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I hated that we got relegated; I also know that some of the fans didn’t think I performed when we got into the Premier League and football is all about opinions, but regardless I loved it.
I only asked to leave because I wanted to be close to family, I was 34-35 - I wanted to be close to the North West if I could. Peter Reid was a great manager, Bobby Saxton was a great assistant manager and the north east was full of great people, I only have fond memories of it.
RR: Before we let you go, your new book ‘Damaged: My Story’ is out today in hardback. Where can we get our hands on it?
PS: It's out right now in both e-Book and Hardback. What I do want to say is if you’re expecting an autobiography from a footballer; you might be disappointed. This is a life story. It depicts everything from being a youngster all the way through today. I was never going to write a book, I never thought my story would come out, I never intended to tell it. I’m no Gazza, no Gary Lineker - if I wrote a memoir just about football; I wouldn’t have bought it myself. In my own opinion, as a footballer I overachieved, so I would have never have written a book. All that changed in November 2016, I now have a story to tell. It’s all there in the book.
If one person picks it up and it helps them to not have to go through the pain and the suffering... because it’s not about the abuse, it’s about the effects it has on your life, then in turn the effects on your family & friends. I don’t want someone to go down the same path I did; I wrote it in the hope it helps someone else.
Paul’s book is available here, whilst also in all good book shops from today.
A huge thank you to Paul for his time & honesty - you can follow him here on Twitter.