RR: Tommy! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report for a wee chat! Here’s a nice and easy one for you to begin with - as a boyhood Sunderland fan, who is your favourite ever Sunderland player?
TM: I grew up watching the G-Force, so I’d have to say Marco Gabbiadini.
Gabbiadini and Gates were great together, but Marco was my hero because he got most of the goals. I used to love him when I went to the games as a youngster at Roker Park.
RR: Did you go to the games as a fan regularly? What are your earliest memories as a fan?
TM: Yeah, I used to go with my Dad. He’s a football scout so I was very fortunate I got to watch a lot of football as a kid. I’d see loads of games because of that; he’d take me to see whoever he was scouting, but I’d go see Sunderland with my mates whenever I had the chance.
RR: Where did you used to stand at Roker?
TM: I started off in the Clock Stand actually, then I move to the Roker End but I ended up in the Fulwell and stayed there until it got knocked down.
I was in the Clock stand when Gary Bennett put David Speedie in the crowd actually! I wasn’t close enough to get a punch in like some of the lads though, I was too far away (laughs).
RR: Rewind all the way back to that pre-season of 2005. You’d had a great season for Ipswich and were linked with move away to a few clubs over the summer. Who else was interested in you and did they ever stand a chance over your boyhood club?
TM: I’d scored fifteen goals at Ipswich that season and we’d lost out in the play offs - I really enjoyed myself there, but it was time to move on.
I could have went to Leeds, they offered me a better contract on good money. I even when down to meet Kevin Blackwell (Leeds manager) and to be honest, they’d offered me more money - but as soon as Sunderland came in my mind was made up. I wanted to play for Sunderland and get back home.
The club is massive - there was no choice to make, it was always Sunderland. My mind was made up.
I got married that summer and Mick (McCarthy) was on holiday in Portugal, he had a house that was only twenty five minutes away from where I was so I went and had a bit of craic with him, and it was more or less sorted there and then.
RR: Did you get on well with Mick?
TM: Well my first memory of him is when I went to look at houses in the area, I found this lovely house. I’m looking around the rooms and suddenly we hear a massive bang on the door - the lady showing me round ignored it, but it kept on banging, each time louder and louder. So she goes to the door to answer it, and who else would it be other than Mick! (laughs).
Turns out he lived directly opposite and my car was in his way. “Can you move your f*****g car?” he goes. It was brilliant. I thought he was going to have me!
He was a great man. Tells you exactly how it is. Smashing fella.
RR: I was at the pre-season game against AZ Alkmaar when you got your first Sunderland goal and also at the Middlesbrough game where you scored after two minutes for your first in the league. What was it like to put the ball in the back of the net for the lads?
TM: Alkmaar (laughs) - that was a good start, aye! It didn’t go to plan after that, but it started well enough! You were at both wins? You should have went to more (laughs)!
It’s massive scoring for Sunderland. The fans are amazing, and when you’re one of them - in short, it means a lot. To be honest, that season I tried to change my game too much. At Ipswich I was an attacking midfielder who could bomb on and get in the box and nab a goal, I had more freedom. Mick wanted me to sit a little more because he liked Dean Whitehead to bomb on as well. He tried to accommodate us both. It didn’t go to plan for me, but it didn’t go to plan for many people that season. It was frustrating because I was a local lad who wanted to do well.
If you look at the players at the club now, all that money that they’ve spent on certain individuals and compare it to what they gave Mick, I am more than certain he could have made them a stable Premier League club.
There’s certain individuals there who don’t look like they even want to be there now. If only that kind of money was given to Mick, he’d have had half a chance.
RR: During the fifteen-point season, we really, weirdly, never seemed to get hammered. It was always 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2. How hard was that to take? When did relegation begin to feel inevitable?
TM: It was unfortunate. It was tough, we’d get done by one goal here or there and it ended up like groundhog day. You’d go through the videos and re-live that defeat every week... some games, it was fine margins, but we just didn’t have the quality - simple as that.
We just weren’t good enough, maybe it was too much for us. We didn’t get the results and finished where we deserved to finish.
In terms of it feeling inevitable, we had an little injection of positivity when Bally came in to be honest and picked up results at Old Trafford on the Friday night; beat Fulham at home and things - but hey, that was a tough season for us all and when it comes down to it, we did not have enough quality.
Individually, there’s no point in saying what could have been for me, it happened - I guess that’s life.
RR: Speaking of Kevin Ball, you’ve played under him and have experience of his coaching. Do you think he should have more of a role in first-team affairs?
TM: Absolutely. I’m surprised he’s not had more of a prominent role. He’s had a dabble managing the team, then had to take a back seat. He’s well respected, a good coach, has the club in his blood and he knows more than anybody what makes up Sunderland AFC’s DNA. He should absolutely be amongst the first team set up in some capacity.
RR: The spirit never seemed to disappear completely. Did you all still get on well together, or was there problems in the dressing room?
TM: We all got on quite well to be honest. We were all down to earth lads, there were no big time charlies. We were close-knit and went out together - I can’t say there were any problems, it just didn’t work out on the pitch sadly.
Julio was the big name player and he was a cracking lad, no airs and graces.
RR: Why do you think Roy Keane didn’t give you a chance?
TM: I got injured in the game against Plymouth at home, that put me out for six weeks. Fast forward a few weeks later and Roy has got the job and he signs Dwight Yorke, Graham Kavanagh and Liam Miller who all play in my position and all hit the ground running, whilst the results certainly picked up.
I got back fit again, did everything I could in training - but I think once Roy has something in his mind - that’s it. I was disappointed I didn’t get more of a chance ‘cause I felt I could have scored goals for him if given a run of games - I did it in the Championship before, so I knew I could do it for him.
I went on loan to Preston and he let me play against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light which we (Preston) won 1-0. He said in his book that I was one of the best players that day and that he regretted allowing me to play. When it all came to pass, come season’s end I ended up back at Ipswich to play under my good friend Jim Magilton - within a season, Jim is sacked and guess who turns up there? My old mate Roy Keane (laughs).
He was pleasant when he saw me though. He shook my hand and said it was nice to see me again.
I had a moved lined up to Sheffield Wednesday on a pre-contract just before he came to Ipswich though as Jim couldn’t offer me a deal unless we got promoted - which was probably a good thing since Roy took over! I got on with him okay, we never fell out - I just don’t think he rated me, which is football.
RR: A few players I have interviewed haven’t been too complimentary about Roy actually...
TM: Yes...I think Liam (Lawrence) had a bit of a fight with him didn’t he? (laughs). I think he respected you if you had a go back at him though, if you stood up to him.
RR: You were Paolo Di Canio’s first signing at Swindon Town and I remember when he was appointed as Sunderland manager, you actually spoke very highly of him. What are your memories of Paolo and do you think he could come back into management?
TM: I tell you what... he’s one of the best coaches I’ve came across! His man management skills...
But as a coach - he was brilliant. His training was hard. We went to Italy in pre-season and I’ve never been so fit in my life. The amount of running we did was unbelievable. He’d pick random numbers out of the air for reps. It was weird, but fitness wise and coaching wise, he was brilliant. We were top of the league - to be perfectly honest, he was really good on the training pitch.
He had a falling out with the chairman though about signing a few players or something and he spat him dummy out an resigned. As he left he was sticking his fingers up at the CCTV cameras and writing on walls! If we drew or got beat, he’d have us in at 6am on a Sunday morning.
His man management skills were shocking and that was his downfall.
Thing is, he needed to be much calmer at Sunderland. There were much bigger egos at Sunderland. He couldn’t go on the way he did at Swindon.
But honestly... I learnt a lot from him. I don’t think he ever slept, he was so thorough. Dedicated some would say; too much for some others.
RR: Did you have any tomato sauce that season?
TM: I hate tomato sauce so I was alright!
The fitness coaches would do laps around the dinner table to check what you were eating; no sauce, no milk, no butter. They’d be spying on your food - you’d be allowed rice cakes though, which were full of butter anyway!
RR: You had a successful career elsewhere, but it didn’t seem to work here for you. How hard is it to hear when people make derogatory comments about your time at the club?
TM: Yeah, it’s disappointing. If you read everything in the papers, forums and Twitter though - you’d end up going into a hole! I read stuff now and again, but simply put I thought it would be a great move for my career at the time and it didn’t work out for me - but it didn’t work out for a lot of people.
I just try to remember a lot of people who say derogatory things about my time at the club are the same who who celebrated my goal at ‘Boro, the goal against West Ham, Portsmouth etc. I was still 100% proud to play for Sunderland. I am delighted I wore that shirt.
RR: How would you sum up your time at the club, and is there anything you’d change?
TM: I’d probably try and perform better and score more goals! I was disappointed we got relegated, of course. I was disappointed it didn’t go as I wanted it to. If you ask Jon Stead, Gary Breen, Nyron Nosworthy about that season - they’d say the same. It just didn’t work.
If I’m honest with you, I wish I’d been given more of a chance under Roy Keane. If I’d got in team, scored a couple of goals, stayed injury free - the rest is history then isn’t it?
I still go to the matches, I still go and see the lads and some people in the crowd give me stick a decade on! However tough it is to play at Sunderland, I’d still say there’s no better place to play if you get it right, show bottle and have a go. The fans respond to that - it’s just a shame not many of them are doing it for the club now.