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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... former Sunderland skipper & Player of the Year, Dean Whitehead!

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Former Sunderland captain Dean Whitehead swung by Roker Report HQ for a chat about his SAFC XI of fellow teammates, the infamous Roy Keane incident, winning the league twice and much, much more from his five seasons on Wearside.

Galway United v Sunderland Photo by Patrick Bolger/Getty Images

RR: Alright, Deano! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to talk about your time at SAFC. You played 185 games for the club across five seasons. What would be your best XI of lads you played with from your time at the club?

DW: That’s a tough one! I might have to go 4-3-3.

I’d go for Craig Gordon in goal. (Stephen) Wrighty at full back with Jonny (Evans) and big Nyron at centre half. George McCartney was excellent the first season I was at the club, so I’d play him at left back just behind Julio - who would have to be in my team.

There’s a case for Liam Lawrence on the right, but I’d probably have to pick Steed Malbranque over him with me in the middle of the three, of course (laughs).

I’d have a front three of Sleeves (Stephen Elliott), Kenwyne Jones and Djibril was alright so I’d have him too.

RR: Let’s rewind back to 2004. You had a great season for Oxford United in the fourth tier and your contract was winding down - there was surely some other clubs interested, so why Sunderland?

DW: I was offered a contract at Oxford and I really, really considered signing it. I was a local lad and I’d never moved out of my hometown, but I just thought if I wanted to make something out of my career I had to go for it. Mick called me up and was impressive, but the sheer size of the club meant I had to take that chance.

There were a few clubs interested in me, mainly from the Championship, but when a club the size of Sunderland comes calling you had to give yourself a shot at making it.

It was a daunting move for numerous reasons, the jump in the leagues and the distance from home but it’s something that you have to take on and challenge yourself with and see how you go. Thankfully for me it worked out okay.

Fulham v Sunderland - Premier League
Deano would pick Kenwyne Jones as one of the best strikers he played alongside during his five seasons on Wearside.
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

RR: You didn’t get in the team originally, but you ended the season winning player of the year - playing most of the season on the wing! What are your memories of that season and why do you feel you made the transition from League Two so quickly?

DW: I think I came into the team after three or four games. I think it was maybe Plymouth away when I got into the starting eleven.

Once I got in the team, I managed to stay in the team - be it on the right hand side or through the middle.

I didn’t really mind where I played to be honest, any young player just wants to play and work for the team. I managed to get into form pretty quickly and everything sort of fell into place for me. I had played right wing for Oxford a couple of times, but not loads, I wasn’t really a tricky winger that would fly past people, but I knew my job and what role I had to take on in that position.

It’s tough when you first move to a club far from your home. You’re still young and you can feel alone in a new city, especially if you’re not in the team, but a few of the lads were in the same boat and we all sort of helped each other and once I started playing regularly I seemed to settle down fairly quickly.

RR: How important was the influence of Mick McCarthy early in your career? He showed a great deal of faith in some young lads that year such as Liam Lawrence, Sleeves and Danny Collins and managed to get us promoted. What does that kind of confidence do for a young professional?

DW: Sunderland were going through a period of transition still. They were looking to invest in some younger, hungry players and move on some of the higher earners and that worked in the favour of the boys he was bringing in, but the thing about Mick was that he trusted in your ability - he would really help you along and bring the best out in you.

If you had any concerns or any worries, he was an open and honest person you could approach and speak to and players respond to that. He would have those discussions and he’d put your mind at ease. His approach to players gave you confidence, and any young player going into a huge club needs that from his manager.

He helped us all massively and thankfully we managed to put together a good run of form together and it all worked out well.

RR: When we got relegated in the 15 points season, there was a lot of talk about your future as you were our best player at that point and Reading were interested. What made you stay, and who or what convinced you to remain at the Stadium of Light?

DW: I suppose I could have moved, but the grass isn’t always greener and when you’re at a club like Sunderland, with the size of it, there’s always the mindset of knowing you can turn this around and I wanted to do that.

I never thought about moving to be completely honest. I wanted to finish off the job sort of thing, if you know what I mean.

Sunderland v Portsmouth
Although Deano had the chance to move on following our relegation, he stayed to “finish off the job” and was integral in our return to the Premier League.
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

RR: Was there no point when you were close to leaving then?

DW: No, not really. I don’t think so. You know what speculation can be like, but once you’re happy somewhere and enjoying your football, even when you’re going through a period like we were, you want to stay and help fix it.

RR: After those first five games of the new season though, did you ever feel like you’d made the wrong choice in staying? Going back to Gigg Lane, that was a tough period wasn’t it?

DW: (Exhales) Yeah... I think every player does when your season starts like that. The club wasn’t in a great shape at the time, we weren’t performing on the pitch, we couldn’t find our best team or get anything going - but you have to work hard and stick by your decisions and try to make sure you help to make sure it was the right one.

Looking back to Bury away it was absolutely awful, it was a real low point to be honest.

RR: But we can laugh about it now can’t we?

DW: Considering how the rest of the season went - yeah!

RR: What are you memories of the day Roy Keane walked into the club? You were the club captain at that time. Was he what you expected?

DW: Leading up to him getting the job, you hear rumours about what he is like and what not but it was exciting, especially for midfielders, to learn from someone with such a big standing in the game like Roy.

With his reputation in football as a world class midfielder you just think of all the things he can help you with and what he can help bring to your game. With his mentality, his drive and his will to win, it was exciting for him to be walking into Sunderland AFC and you could see that in the way we played in the West Brom game where we won 2-0. Knowing Roy was there, the levels just shot up and it was like a different side compared to the previous five games.

Once Roy came in, we never really looked back.

RR: What changed in the dressing room that helped us to go on that incredible run to win the Championship? How does a team go from rock bottom to Champions?

DW: With Roy looking over us, everyone was just working to be on top of their game. Like I was saying earlier, his drive and his winning mentality really got injected into the team and that mentality just rubbed off on every single one of us and pushed us.

Once you start winning games, it snowballs confidence into the team and with the ability Roy had to bring out the best in the lads, it just made you feel almost unbeatable at times. We were going into games expecting to win, we just had that confidence, the fans were 100% behind us and the momentum that we had just carried us on and on and on until the day we battered Luton to win the title.

Luton Town v Sunderland
Although he has many stand out moments, our run to the league title under Roy Keane is Dean’s most memorable of his Wearside career.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

RR: In our first season back in the Premier League, we had a real team spirit and scored so many last minute winners, but in the pre-season after there was a lot of talk around hitting that ‘next level’ and we brought in many ‘big’ names that actually seemed to hinder us. What was your take on that period?

DW: We had that good first year in the Premier League and the team spirit did carry on from that unbelievable end of season run in the Championship, but I think a lot of clubs do that [buy big name players] to get to the ‘next level’.

I think you need to realise where you’re at as a club and where you can get to and where it is possible to get to. A lot of clubs stay up and then they think they can push on and achieve things that may are just a little out of our depth at that time, but once you invest in bigger names and bigger wages things don’t always go as planned.

It’s difficult when you lose games, we had a really poor spell and the aura around the place changes when that happens.

RR: Dwight Yorke talked in his book about that infamous dressing room rant after the 2-2 draw with Northampton, where he apparently slapped you around the head. What are your memories of that night?

DW: One of those games during that poor spell was Northampton in the Carling Cup as you referenced there. You’ve seen it before in cup games like that; for the lower division team it’s a cup final and maybe the bigger sides have taken their foot off the pedal - who knows. Shock results do happen.

Look, a lot of things are said and happen in the dressing room at half time and full time - it’s just part and parcel of the game. If you can’t take criticism, then you’re in the wrong game so there was no issues there. In football, people are always going to be there to criticise you so you have to be ready to accept it, be strong and get on with it and keep improving.

RR: So was the Roy Keane incident overplayed a little do you think? Was it just a standard dressing-down that got more hype because it was in a book?

DW: Yeah, I think things always get blown out of proportion - especially when it’s Roy Keane.

People, however they perceive him, want him to be this man that argues with people and flies off the handle but I never had any issues with him the whole time he was there. I took the criticism and the praise in equal measure because that’s the game - he was always good with me at Sunderland.

RR: How did he differ from Mick McCarthy?

DW: They are different characters definitely. Mick was more hands on, take all the sessions and would get involved in the training, whereas Roy would sit back and analyse, he’d take a back seat and observe to make sure the standards are high.

They were both great, but very different.

RR: One of the best games ever at the Stadium of Light was our 2-1 win over Newcastle, a game you captained us in. It felt like we were going to win from the moment I woke up that day and everyone around the stadium seemed to feel the same. What are your memories of it?

DW: We’d had quite a good start that season so we were confident. We felt we were playing well at the time and we felt as a team that we could go out and turn them over and give the fans their day.

People live and breathe football in the North East and you know as a player how important derby games are. We were prepared and ready for it that day and I think in the end we fully deserved to beat them.

As a captain, I think everyone had their own procedures and pre-match routine and you try to treat it like any other game, but you can’t get away from the importance of a derby day. Leading up to it, you could feel the atmosphere around the ground, the city - everywhere you went.

I think you just have to concentrate on making sure you set an example by how you perform on the grass and get your own performance in order before you dictate what others do. Lead by example, you know.

Southampton v Sunderland
Dean was instrumental as captain during our promotion campaign under Roy Keane, before he helped us to establish ourselves in the Premier League, where we remained for ten seasons.
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

RR: How hard was it to be captain around the time when you had an allegedly disruptive dressing room? How do you skipper players like Diouf and Chimbonda? It must have been hard.

DW: It can be difficult, but I think a lot of clubs will have had similar situations.

There will be players that are maybe not 100% on board with what the club want to do, or where the club is at and it’s just a case of making sure that as many of the players who are on board with where the club is going or where the club is at and believe in the way the team plays and the team spirit remain together and resolute - keep them away from any disruptive influences that maybe do cause a little bit of trouble.

You just needed to make sure that groups of players don’t get dragged into those sort of disruptive groups, because once that happens, you don’t stand a chance.

RR: You had a really good relationship with the fans but came in for some unfair criticism in your last season. How did you handle that?

DW: Every footballer will get stick at some point, that’s just the nature of the game but like I was saying before, if you can’t take criticism - you’re going to find this job tough.

You just have to stand firm, stick your chest out and prove them wrong.

RR: Do you think you maybe suffered from fans wanting the big names and that perceived ‘next level’ signing, and they maybe forgot about the likes of yourself who had been integral to our revival?

DW: Clubs and fans want big names, exciting players. The kind of players that can dribble around players, produce magic moments and score twenty five yard screamers but it’s easy to forget the reliable players - the players that are consistent every week. You need those kind of players who can keep the ball and give it to the players who get the fans off their seat.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Premier League
Dean went on to play 132 games for Stoke City, and Steve Bruce replaced the former captain with a young Lee Cattermole.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

RR: You departed for Stoke City shortly after to play under Tony Pulis. Did you feel it was the right time to go? Did Steve Bruce try and keep you at the club?

DW: I think I was ready to leave really, it was time for me to move on and let somebody else come in whether I wanted to or not really. But look, if I’d stayed I would have worked hard and tried to show people I deserved to be in the team.

It was a good move for me though, it was a good move for Sunderland too so I moved on. Steve Bruce didn’t really have a chance to convince me to stay to be honest because the move was more or less done by the time he came into the club, I had a few loose ends to tie up with Stoke and I was gone about four days after he took the job.

I left Sunderland with some fantastic memories though and it was a place where I made some great friends.

RR: Finally then Dean, what’s your fondest memory of your five seasons here?

DW: I’ve got a few but I suppose I would have to say that incredible run to the title at the end of my second promotion season. The first year was a fantastic time for me as well, being a young player and moving to such a big club, winning promotion in my first season and winning a trophy.

I have some really, really fond memories of my time at Sunderland and they are the kind of memories I will keep with me forever. I really enjoyed my time there.