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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... Former Sunderland player of the season Danny Collins!

Joining Roker Report for a chat about his career as a Sunderland player - including ALL of the highs and lows - is former ‘Player of the Season’ Danny Collins.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Aston Villa - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report for a chat Danny. Before we get into the juicy stuff, we always start off with a nice and easy one. Who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club?

DC: In terms of technical ability, I would have to go for Steed Malbranque.

He never seemed to be phased and managed to keep the ball at his feet even in the tightest of areas. A very good technical player. I’d probably have to go for him.

He was a very quiet lad, and just got on with his job.

RR: You were brought to the club by Mick McCarthy after an impressive performance against us in the cup for Chester City. How did the move come about?

DC: It was my third season at Chester and we had just won the Conference and we went to the Stadium of Light about eight games into the season. I knew a few teams were looking at me - including Sunderland - and although we lost 3-0, I had a steady game. We had two or three more games after that when I got the call from my agent to say to a fee had been agreed with Sunderland and we travelled up. I came up on the Sunday and signed more or less straight away.

Sheffield United were interested, but I knew Mick was a good, honest manager and going from a team just promoted to League Two to a team third in the Championship - as Sunderland were at the time - was an obvious step up for me as a professional. Then of course you have the training ground and the facilities which is a different world to what I was used to.

I knew Sunderland were a good club, a big club and one moving in the right direction at that time.

Danny Collins (L) of Sunderland vies wit
Joey Barton is sent flying by Danny in a 1-1 derby draw back in 2007.
Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images

RR: You played at left-back on your debut for the club - was it unfamiliar to you at that time?

DC: Yes and no. I used to play on the left hand side in a back three at Chester; so you’d tend to be like a centre half/left back. In a back three you can get dragged to the left hand side and you have to watch that channel. It wasn’t that unfamiliar.

RR: In your first season, the club won the Championship title. Looking back, it was a huge achievement because of all the young boys we had around the first team at that time. What made McCarthy’s promotion team work so well?

DC: We had some old heads in Tommy Myhre, Gary Breen and Marcus Stewart mixed with me, Deano, Liam Lawrence etc. When you’re a young lad you’re just enjoying football; it’s an opportunity to prove yourself and make that step up.

Taff Evans was Mick’s assistant and he always had a good laugh and kept you smiling in training. He was good with the lads and when you’re winning games at the right end of the table that helps the atmosphere anyway. On the flip side, the season we went down you’re finding it difficult, getting beat week-in, week-out, then it’s difficult going in on a Monday morning - that’s where you need the big characters in the dressing room, which is probably what Sunderland need right now.

RR: Although you had many, many good times as a Sunderland player, we probably have to touch on that 15-point season as well. How disappointing was it for you to see Mick McCarthy harrow like he did before eventually being sacked, him being the man who brought you to the club?

DC: Looking back on my career, Mick was one of the best managers I’ve ever had - I took to him straight away. You can see it with him, he wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s a passionate, honest man. You could tell losing riled him up.

He didn’t have much to spend really and the most frustrating thing was we very rarely got slapped four or five nil - it was all just narrow defeats. It’s difficult because when you’re getting beat every week the nature of football means the manager loses his job, but he’s had jobs since then at Wolves and Ipswich and proved himself again; in most cases on tight budgets too.

RR: I’ve spoken to a few players who were at the club when Roy Keane was appointed - almost all of them fell foul of Keano pretty early on, but you seemed to really blossom when he took over. What was it about Roy Keane that seemed to turn you from a player who was in and out of the first team into one of the first names on the team sheet?

DC: I remember when Roy first came in. He called me in to his office and said I might have to settle for a place on the bench and asked if I’d like to go out on loan, but I told him no and that I’d rather stay, work hard and fight for my place. I worked really hard in training and within a few games got into the team and that was that really - I think someone told me the other day that I played more games for him than any other player during his time at Sunderland.

I know he had the ability to fly off the handle and fall out with one or two of the players, but I got on well with him. He still had the mentality that he did as a player; he was a winner. He used to get really involved in the five a side. He wanted things done right off the pitch. Similar to Mick, he wore his heart on his sleeve and as a player I liked that - you knew where you stood. I got on well with him.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Aston Villa - Stadium of Light
Danny Collins celebrates the opener against Aston Villa at the Stadium of Light.
Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: What happened in the dressing room after that Northampton game? It was quite well documented in Dwight Yorke’s book!

DC: He came in and volleyed the tactics board across the dressing room. He then went round to each player individually and was pointing his finger in their face saying you’re this and that. He had a bit of a go at Marton Fulop and Dean Whitehead in particular and then walked off without saying anything.

We went back out and won the game on penalties, but he never came into the dressing room afterwards. That was Roy though, he was a fiery character.

RR: The promotion season was one of the best in recent memory. For the first time in years, there seemed to be a real cohesion between the board, fans and players. Roy Keane aside, what changed in that season to help us go from top to bottom?

DC: That season started with Quinny and I think he’d admit himself that it just didn’t really work did it? We couldn’t win a game and we were struggling. When Roy came in he brought in a lot of new faces with him. Ross (Wallace), Liam Miller, Yorkie - we all clicked really quickly.

Tony Loughlan, who’s now Sean Dyche’s assistant at Burnley, took most of the training sessions and got us organised. We had that run of twenty or something games unbeaten and when you go on a run like that, you feel unbeatable. Once Carlos (Edwards) came in - we got at people even more and played some great football. It all just sort of worked.

RR: You were part of the team that finally broke that Newcastle hoodoo when we beat them 2-1. I remember the game myself clear as day; I never felt like we wouldn’t win that day. What was that like? What did Roy say in the dressing room?

DC: I can’t remember Roy’s team talk, but let’s be honest - it’s a huge derby and if you can’t get up for games like that, you shouldn’t be in football.

I remember one game coming back from St. James’. Their fans had smashed the windows on the bus and that sort of stuff stays with you - it’s a hostile derby. A few of the lads who’ve played in both that derby and the Old Firm say it’s right up there in terms of intensity.

It was a long time coming (the win). I played in a few draws against them and of course I remember that win. Kieran Richarson’s free kick was amazing and won us the game. The rivalry is massive up there and we really wanted to give back that local pride and bragging rights to the fans. It’s nice to get one over your local rivals.

RR: Around the same time, a certain song came to fruition about you playing up front for Brazil. What did you think of it?

DC: (laughs) Yeah... obviously chants are made for flair players, but rarely for a left-back! I’d love to know who came up with it. It’s got a nice rhyme and rhythm to it! Nyron got a great song as well around the same time.

When you first hear it, the hairs do stand up on your neck - it’s great to hear that from fans. It’s carried on at a few other clubs, so it’s followed me a little!

Danny is still playing for Grimsby Town in League Two.
Grimsby Town FC Twitter

RR: When Keane left, they seemed to be a real fracture in the squad. The media pointed towards the likes of Pascal Chimbonda and El-Hadji Diouf etc. Why did that second Premier League season not work out? We had so much quality, but the team spirit just seemed dead.

DC: When you’re winning, it’s easy to have a good atmosphere around the place, but when you’re not, that’s when you find out the character of players. One or two bad eggs in the camp that won’t roll their sleeves up, and you’ve got problems.

Look at the team up the road (Newcastle) when they went down and they had a large influx of French players who didn’t seem to want to get mucked in when the going got tough. We had a few lads who didn’t mind going on the training pitch on a nice warm, sunny day but wouldn’t like getting stuck in when things got tough.

I had a few run-ins with one of those players you mentioned - quite a few times.

I felt he had brought in a few lads who maybe didn’t have the right character for Sunderland. The mindset of it didn’t matter if we got relegated, because they’d get a move in the summer sort of thing. I’d been there 2-3 years previous and I remember how hard we grafted to get back up there and I wasn’t prepared to let it go so soon.

There were certain players that just didn’t want to do the tough day in day out stuff. We had certain players who’d swagger out ten minutes before training started. It sets a divide in the camp. One player had a big fall out with Anton (Ferdinand) that was well documented...

RR: Was that Diouf?

DC: Yeah. We’d just beaten Fulham 1-0 at home and he (Diouf) came into a dressing room that had just won an important game moaning at Ricky Sbragia that he didn’t get on. Anton just said “look, this isn’t the time - talk about it in his office privately on Monday”. It was stuff like that, daft little things that divided the camp.

RR: Is the rumour true that you and a certain former striker had words in the dressing room at St. James after he “missed” that late chance? Part of me really hopes it is...

DC: I assume you’re referring to Chops (Michael Chopra)? No. He would have wanted to score, I think his confidence was low at that time but Chops is a striker and he would have wanted that to go in if it could have. He was paid by Sunderland at the time and strikers are strikers - they want to score goals. He would not have missed on purpose.

If I had said anything to him afterwards, it would have been more along the lines of “you put those away in training for fun, you should be finishing that”.

No, that’s not true though.

I played with him at Ipswich too. He’s a good finisher and he’s good on the training pitch. He got that late winner for us against Spurs I remember, those two goals against Middlesbrough - he was a very good finisher.

RR: Did you think Ricky Sbragia was the right choice for the job at that time?

DC: Ricky was good on the training pitch. The lads liked him and he was all about the banter on the training ground - but he was more suited to a number two role I think.

He liked putting the training sessions on, but I think it’s always hard to flip the switch from being a number two into a number one. You have to have a little less banter, be a little more serious - that’s hard to do.

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Barclays Premier League
Despite rumours, there was no rift between Danny and former striker Michael Chopra.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

RR: It was a huge surprise when you left the club, as you’d captained the team quite frequently in the weeks leading up to it. How and why did the move come about and what was your relationship like with Steve Bruce? Were you gutted to leave?

DC: He gave me the armband in the Amsterdam tournament and all through pre-season and I kept it going into the season. We started really well and won two of the first three games, but he called me in his office after the Blackburn game and said he knew how well I had done the past few years but that he was looking to bring in some defenders and I can’t guarantee that you’d get in the team every week.

He drifted on and started telling me he’d had Tony Pulis on the phone and he was interested in bringing me in. I was shocked. I was the captain, I had won player of the season and was loving life up there - but I just felt unwanted after he told me all of that. It was so out of the blue - I was settled in the area.

As it was, he put me on the bench in next game - ironically at Stoke. I met Tony Pulis after the game with my agent and the deal was done on transfer deadline day.

Looking back now in hindsight - I loved it at Sunderland and I felt pushed out the door, but when the manager is telling you he is going to be playing you, that he effectively doesn’t want you in a way - I had to make a decision and that was that.

RR: Finally, you still live in the area, so what are your thoughts on the current Sunderland team, and do you think Chris Coleman is the right man to turn around the mess they find themselves in? What're your experiences with Chris?

DC: Yeah, I’m at Grimsby Town now. Up until Christmas we were a point of the play-offs, but we’ve lost four of the last six and had a little dip in form. We drew 1-1 with Colchester last weekend, but should have been a few up at half time. I still live in Durham though and stay down Grimsby about two nights a week, so I’m in Durham most of the time.

I never played under Chris for Wales. I played mainly under John Toshack and played a few games under Gary Speed. I did get a call from Chris when I was at Nottingham Forest and was asked to come back because they had some injuries, but I felt like I was being used a little and that I would be straight out the squad when the lads get fit again. I was 33-34 at the time, so I asked if I could concentrate on my club football and that was that - I didn’t really deal with Chris very much.

The Sunderland job if a tough task, even Pep Guardiola would find it difficult at the moment, but he’s obviously backed himself to do it and his reputation is certainly good after the job he did for Wales.

I watched the first half of the Cardiff game before our (Grimsby) match and thought they did quite well, but then I saw it ended 4-0 and I couldn’t believe it. Watching the highlights, it just looked like the players crumbled a little - they looked dejected. It was a good win against Hull however in a big six-pointer and if he can give the club a fighting chance, he’ll fancy himself to get it right in the long term.

Danny will be joining us tomorrow night in the studio for this week’s edition of the Roker Rapport - click here to subscribe on iTunes, Acast and Youtube.