RR: Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to chat about your time at Sunderland, Matt. Let’s dive straight in - who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club?
MK: As a centre half partner, John O’Shea. I’d have to say him. We played well together.
I’d have to say Stephane Sessegnon though if we’re talking the whole squad. You’d not want to even face him in training, because if he got you one on one you would struggle. He was so sharp over five yards.
If he scored more, he’d have played at a really high level. He had everything, he just didn’t score enough - but he was brilliant.
RR: You joined us in the January transfer window of 2010 and signed a three-year-deal under Steve Bruce. How did Steve Bruce sell the club to you? What we’re your thoughts on moving to the club?
MK: The attraction is the Premier League. The Championship is full of big clubs nowadays, but even now if someone from Brighton or Bournemouth - no disrespect - wants a player from Aston Villa, he’s likely to want to move. It’s all about the size of that league. It’s everyone’s dream to play in the Premier League and I was no different.
I knew how big Sunderland was. They had crowds of 45k every other week. Steve Bruce was a pull too, he was a fantastic centre half and I thought he could bring my game on. He was a top centre half. It was a shame he didn’t seem to fancy me...
RR: I was actually at your debut game against Everton. When you joined we were on one of those horrible runs under Bruce where we couldn’t seem to buy a win. Coming into that sort of atmosphere, do you find out pretty quickly how rewarding, yet difficult, it is to play up in the North East?
MK: I remember they were desperate to get the signing through because all of the centre halves were injured. I did a bit of training on the Monday and we had a game immediately on the Tuesday. He paired me with Nosworthy at Goodison. John Mensah and George McCartney played at full back. I don’t know how happy McCartney was at the time, Mensah wasn’t a right back - the team was depleted and we were 2-0 down at half time. The gaffer wasn’t happy. I remember him having a go at Kenwyne.
In those first few weeks, it really dawned on me how difficult it was going to be. I knew the Premier League wasn’t easy but there was a lot of players who were unhappy in the squad at that time. Players who were maybe out of the squad for a while, but had to play because of injuries - it was a tough run and that didn’t help.
RR: I remember you almost immediately got dropped without being given a chance to even showcase your talents. Did Steve Bruce give you any reasoning as to why he seemed to change his mind on you almost immediately? Did you enjoy a good relationship with him?
MK: I came into the club and was buzzing. The next game I helped the team keep a clean sheet at home to Stoke - we weren’t winning, but I thought I started alright, I just felt maybe I was never purchased to be a first-teamer. Maybe he just needed back up. He loved John Mensah, he had Michael Turner and Anton both ahead of me.
I got myself in good shape pre-season and thought I’d prove him wrong, then he came up to me two days into pre-season training and told me I wouldn’t be in the squad most weeks and would be on the bench at best. I was gutted. It was a kick in the teeth. I didn’t know what it was, I just don’t think he took to me.
A few clubs wanted me in that January window and I went to Sunderland, then suddenly felt unwanted within six months - but I don’t have a crystal ball, I didn’t know that would happen.
I’m a proud lad, and when he said I could go out on loan I did. I didn’t want the fans to think I was just sitting on my wage and not playing - in hindsight maybe I should have stayed and fought for my place.
RR: You spent the next season out on loan, came back and then out of nowhere got back into the side against Manchester City on New Year’s Day - one of the most memorable games of all time at the Stadium of Light. What are your memories of that day? I remember the fans singing “Matthew Kilgallon, we thought you were dead!”
MK: I wasn’t involved with the club at all at the start of that season and was training with the reserves. I had a problem with my back actually and being out of the helped that, allowing me to rest. I just kept myself as fit as possible and kept going.
One day I saw Steve Bruce in the corridor and I had to go and speak to him. I asked him if I could train with the first team until I found a move, because I didn’t want to just sit at the club, pick up my wages and rot. I wanted to be playing against the likes of Sessegnon and Frazier Campbell in training, players who were sharp and strong. He let me rejoin the first team training, understood my need to be involved in that set up. The Lads were saying “bloody hell, Killa, you’re looking sharp!”.
Lo and behold, three days later and Steve Bruce got sacked! So I’m thinking I’ve had three days of first team training, whoever comes in I’ll just say nothing and continue training with the first team (laughs). When Martin (O’Neill) came in, training was good and I must have caught his eye ‘cause I got in the squad.
Phil Bardsley said to me in the hotel before the game that he thought I’d get on ‘cause he knew Wes Brown was struggling with his knee and within fifteen minutes, he’d gone down injured and I was on the pitch. Because of what Bardo had said, I was ready for it. I couldn’t wait to just get going. I felt like I hadn’t missed any of the football. I was lucky to have John O’Shea next me, he’s a really calming influence.
It’s the game I remember most out of my whole career. It was a bit of a bombardment mind!
RR: You enjoyed a really good run in the side after that. How much was your good form at that time down to the influence of Martin O’Neill?
MK: Ah, I dunno really. I have to give him credit because it was him who brought me in from the cold and I can’t thank him enough for that. He was old school - something I liked. Training with him was fun, it was an enjoyable time with the squad we had there.
He did nothing specific with me though. He allowed you to go out an express yourself; he was that type of manager. He didn’t do too much on the training ground, but still got the best out of his players because of his style.
RR: That rabona in the game away at Manchester City was incredible and coined you the nickname, Skillgallon - talk me through that!
MK: Martin O’Neill didn’t tell you the team till about 40 mins or so before you went out to warm up. I hadn’t played for weeks but he’d signed the lad who used to be at Liverpool with the long hair - Kyriagkos - he’d had a poor performance the week beforehand and I thought he might have changed it up and I’d get into the team. The team went up and I was right, I was in it. I went out there and the lads were brilliant; we were 3-1 up at the Etihad and I was really enjoying myself to be honest!
I was loving it. It was something I had planned, but 3-1 up and enjoying it - you go and express yourself. The fans still mention it to me even now! Then I pulled up with cramp and had to go off and it went to 3-3... but we won’t go into that (laughs)!
Sunderland fans have always been great to me. I wish I could have showed them a bit more, but I feel like when I played I didn’t let the fans down and I think the fans have remembered me. The messages I got when I left were unbelievable. Honestly.
If I just got a bit of a run under Bruce, I think I could have done a bit more. Even with Martin O’Neill, for example we beat Manchester City on Boxing Day 1-0 and I was at centre half, and O’Neill changed the team and put me at left back the next game against Spurs. I remember thinking “why change it, we’ve just kept a clean sheet against the champions?” but it’s all ifs and buts isn’t it.
Honestly though, the fans were brilliant with me.
RR: Come the next season, we underachieved badly and the Martin O’Neill effect just disappeared. What are your thoughts on why it went sour so quickly?
MK: When managers come in, they always give you a lift initially. You have that period. Why didn’t it work? It’s hard to work out. He brought in Cuellar from Villa and he loved him, Fletcher, Johnson, Saha - most of them didn’t really work out or gel together fast enough.
Sometimes, it just feels like there’s something at Sunderland where they just can’t get it right. The training ground, the infrastructure - it’s all there, but it doesn’t work for some reason. The fans must be sick of hearing it.
Everything is done right at Sunderland behind the scenes, you’re looked after, you fly to the away games. People outside the club might think it’s an easy ride; but it’s not. it was one of the hardest places I’ve ever been at. The fans demand effort too, they don’t take prisoners. They don’t care where you’re from or how much you cost - they know when you’re not putting a shift in.
RR: Next thing you know Paolo Di Canio is appointed manager at the club. Describe to me the moment Paolo Di Canio steps into the Academy of Light?
The day he was appointed we were meant to be off and he pulled us all in. We trained every day for six weeks. It was the hardest time of my career, that was - I didn’t enjoy it at all, and a lot of the other lads didn’t either. it was too much.
He’d make some brilliant points at times. He did shape work and he was excellent with it and it helped us on the pitch, but anything good that he did he’d end up killing it by doing something else - making silly rules that didn’t need to be there; he turned it into a military camp. There were people at that club who were parents and he would speak to them like kids.
Being a footballer is the best job in the world, and for him to make players wake up and it to feel like you don’t want to do this - well, it takes some doing doesn’t it?
If he had more of a happy medium; he could be a top manager.
RR: You were on the bench the day we beat Newcastle 3-0 at St. James, so you got to see everything PDC did on the bench alongside an incredible game - I even remember you getting involved in the pile on after David Vaughan’s goal! What did Paolo say to the players that day and what was it like to be involved in?
MK: One thing Paolo was good at was getting the lads going for a game. He is a passionate guy. He would really rouse the lads in the dressing room, he would tell us all how we’d be remembered forever if we went out and won this game. He spoke very passionately. You could see it in the lads as well from the off, there was only going to be one winner that day. The lads on the pitch were class.
Di Canio’s work on shape in training really aided the defence and it’s why we looked so solid, his coaching really helped the back four and you can see it when you watched the game.
All the goals were screamers too, every one of them was a beauty. It was a great day, and a fantastic match for the fans. It really was.
RR: Finally, how would you sum up your time at Sunderland and would you do anything differently?
MK: I’d have stayed when Bruce told me I wasn’t going to be involved and not gone out on loan. I’d have fought for my place - maybe gave it until January to see if I could get in. I just didn’t want the fans to think I’d only just arrived and sat on the bench and picked up my pay packet. But you can’t dwell on these things.
Maybe I wouldn’t have went to the casino with Bardo! (laughs).