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Interview: “Hey hey hey, hard as f**k!” Roker Report meets... ex-Sunderland captain Lorik Cana!

Lorik Cana joined Roker Report to talk about his life growing up, his career, his spell at Sunderland, playing with Catts and Bardsley, the passion of the supporters, Steve Bruce, his reasons for leaving and more.

Everton v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

RR: Hi Lorik! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your time on Wearside. We’ll start with a nice easy one. Is it true that you can slam a revolving door?

LC: (Laughs) The answer is always the same - you try not to have limits. The main strength of someone is always in what you think you can reach.

Even if you think it’s difficult, it’s from how you push yourself.

It’s not just about the physical strength, it’s about what’s in your mind and in your heart. You have to try and not have limits. Be realistic, be smart but when you try to reach goals in performances you heart and your mind makes such a difference.

Being part of the English game, and in particular Sunderland, I felt that was what the people stand for - that mentality matched what people are like in the North East. I found myself in the perfect place.

RR: Onto more serious matters. Tell us about your early life - I understand you moved from Kosovo at a young age following the Yugoslavian wars, and settled in Switzerland. What was that like, and how did your experiences when young influence your footballing development?

LC: I think a lot. I might have already mentioned a little about my past when I was at Sunderland.

I wasn’t the only one who was brought up in the way, and you see these type of things with so many conflicts in the world, even today. At that time it was in the Balkans and like many of our fellow Albanians, we left our country - not because we wanted to - but we couldn’t stay with the way things were. We wanted a better future and a better situation.

I never chose to be a football player. My Dad was a former footballer and he wanted me to play. I was passionate about football and I had a little bit of quality to and I tried to follow in his steps and I think it did pretty well.

To be honest, if I’d stayed in Kosovo I’m not sure I’d of had the same career, because many Albanian’s who played were as good as me, and maybe better, but they didn’t have the opportunities like I did living in Switzerland. Good facilities, good coaches.

In the early 90’s during the conflict, we weren’t really thinking about football, I was more thinking “how is my family” “are they safe?” - but in another way, it does make you strong/

You feel a responsibility, something to reach to help. You fight to play football, not just for yourself - but also to make your family proud. It made me as a person, not just the player as the player is part of the person you are I would say.

Burnley v Sunderland - Premier League
As competitive and tough as they come, Lorik was an ideal fit for a club like ourselves - and he knew it.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

RR: You were Steve Bruce’s first signing at the club. To buy a player of your presence, reputation and class had many fans excited - but what was it that convinced you Sunderland was the right place to continue your career?

LC: At that time, I knew I was leaving Marseille in the summer of 2009. I had been there for many years, the President and the coach had left and I agreed if they left, I would also.

I had many offers from Germany, Arsene Wenger was interested, Everton were also interested - then there was Sunderland who I knew of, their identity and the history. I had a chance to go and speak with the new manager at the time - Steve Bruce - and he explained to me how huge Sunderland were and what he wanted to do and how I was part of that.

It is the best league in the world, but if I can see myself in the values of a football club and how I can play every week with fans that always behind you, with huge support - maybe it wasn’t Arsenal, but Sunderland was ideal for me because of how I saw myself matching with the clubs identity and plans.

RR: Going into the season, Steve Bruce and the fans talked about “toughening” up the midfield and we certainly did that, signing yourself and Lee Cattermole in the middle. How much did you enjoy playing with Catts?

LC: Oh, a lot. I seriously enjoyed playing with Lee a lot. Not only with him, but the whole team really.

There’s no set way to approach football, there’s no perfect tactics but as a team we always played high intensity, compact and putting pressure on the opposition - it was a very England way to play football and think football.

The coach (Bruce) prepared his team very well to play that way.

When all the players were fully fit and in good condition, I think we were in the top 7 or 8 teams in England and I think we proved it. The problem we had was we didn’t have the strength in depth when the likes of Darren Bent, Lee Cattermole, Kieran Richardson, Jordan Henderson - so many good players - got injured or were suspended.

We didn’t have twenty players the same level, but our first eleven when they were fit and ready to play - we were a difficult team to face.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

RR: Let’s talk about the game vs Liverpool. The beach ball and then your second half performance. What are your memories of that game and just how high up does that performance rank for you?

LC: Some days you feel in your best physical condition and the team plays well.

I started in central midfield, I was playing okay but no better than the other, we lost our centre back and I moved back as you remember. Liverpool really put us under pressure and were putting lots of balls in the box and I just felt a responsibility to lead by example.

It could have been easy for us, Bent and Kenwyne Jones hit the post I think. It was an amazing win and it was one of the better games of my careers.

I felt like I had a real connection with the Sunderland crowd that day; it was magical.

RR: What did you think of the song that the supporters sang for you?

LC: I remember they sang it after the second or third game. I’ll tell you something I’ve never shared with anyone though...

I arrived late in July at Sunderland and we played in Scotland in pre-season at Celtic Park. We won 2-1 and I was on the bench, I had just arrived so I only played the last ten or fifteen minutes. I remember when I went to warm up and it was next to the Sunderland fans - warm would be an understatement - I got a boiling reception! Everyone was shouting and clapping.

Eric Black was the assistant at the time and he spoke fluent French. He said to me “wow, that’s a pretty warm welcome!” and I said “don’t worry my friend, I’ll give them back 100% more than what they are waiting for”.

The way the fans welcomed me - it was one of the best receptions I’ve ever had and I knew I was going to have a great relationship with them.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League
Lorik’s performance in our 1-0 home win over Liverpool was the complete captain’s performance. Colossal.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

RR: I heard when you received the man of the match award after the game, you made a speech that almost had Niall Quinn in tears - is that true?

LC: Well... I remember the speech when I won the man of the match. Niall Quinn was always someone who was really close to the players, the people, Sunderland as a football club and the community and the love people felt for the club.

When I was speaking I was only looking at the people and the Chairman was behind me - but if he had emotion, it would have been more about the Sunderland fans and the people and making them proud, not about my performance or what I said in the speech.

RR: Your season at the club turned out to be your only season in the Premier League - who was the toughest opponent you came across and why?

LC: I have to be honest, when I was really feeling fit and well, physically I had no tough opponents to be honest.

When I had a problem with my knee and the team struggled around January, I came up against some great players. The likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard but to be totally honest the toughest opponent I had and I struggled - even physically - was Emile Heskey.

That guy was so f***ing tough!

I got sent off that night with two yellow cards, I tried to push Emile Heskey off the ball and I just couldn’t - he was so strong!

RR: How was working with Steve Bruce? He gave you the captaincy and we had a terrific start to the season, but when we went through that winless run, was the relationship strained between you both?

LC: To be honest, he was the main person who convinced me to come to Sunderland. I knew him as a former Manchester United player, but I had no idea what he was like as a coach.

In person, the first time we met was amazing. Maybe not technically, but as a person, the person in front of you - he was fantastic. I felt when I met him and looked at him, I could get through the difficult parts with him.

I felt like his decisions he made were done for the rights reasons, he didn’t want to hurt anyone or make anyone feel bad, he was a good guy. When I was playing poorly, he made some of those decisions and I didn’t play too regular at some point, but I still wanted to back him and make sure the people at the club were doing the same.

I keep a great record of Steve Bruce as a person. As a coach, he has his identity and he doesn’t change that - I respect that a lot.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
When he was fit and feeling good, Lorik didn’t find any opponent tough.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

RR: You played alongside Lee Cattermole, who is of course still at the club. What did you make of Lee when he was younger, both as a character on the pitch and a footballer?

LC: I spent time with Lee every day. I shared a lot that related to football, obviously. I didn’t speak to much to him about every day life; we were very different people to be honest.

When it came to football though, we shared a lot and spoke a lot. That’s why we were a good pair. When it was time to focus on things on the pitch, we were able to do some really great stuff. We both had really different paths to Sunderland, our career and us as people - but as a player and the way he was on the pitch, we connected.

He was a little like an English Lorik Cana, but younger.

At that time, he only had one way of playing. but he was young and still learning. As players though, I think we showed people how good we were together. We set the tempo of the games and had a very good connection that made it possible.

RR: Who else at Sunderland did you enjoy playing alongside?

LC: I came the same season as Bolo Zenden who also came from Marseille, so I didn’t come alone. He had experience of playing with Liverpool and Chelsea and he helped me.

The biggest difference in England though and they way the teams played was in training was how intense it was. Some of the English players trained harder than the actually played! The tempo of the training was absolutely amazing.

I enjoyed playing with everyone really. Steed Malbranque, Kenwyne Jones was amazing and he such strong power and was a real asset towards how we wanted to play. Darren Bent was on absolute fire. Kieran Richardson was a very good player and so versatile - he was so quick.

I tried to be a mentor for Jordan Henderson too because he was only a young boy. I told his parents that if he concentrated on his football and focused on that, he could be a really important player for the national team, and I think I was right. We had two great goalkeepers in Craig Gordon and Marton Fulop - a person we were all devastated to hear had passed.

The craziest guy I ever met in football though is Phil Bardsley. He was a great guy, I think he could have had an even better career with a little bit of luck. I loved his mentality, so tough and strong.

I was very lucky to play in such a talented team.

Fulham v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

RR: What did you make of the culture around the dressing room at the time?

LC: Sunderland were battling relegation up until the last game before I came.

They had new players and a new coach and we were trying to build a team and gel things together - which can be tough in the Premier League.

Like I was saying before, I think the reason we struggled was just not having twenty players who could all play the same level. The dressing room had a good atmosphere though. It could have been tough for me, my first season in England, the captain had just left, the vice captain had just left and I was a foreign player who came in as captain.

I think I just tried to show I would fight for everything, battle for the win and lead by example and they understood that.

I had a good relationship with the team.

RR: When you left the club, it was said you moved as you wanted to be closer to home. I spoke to Bolo Zenden a few months ago and he talked of the lack of ambition in the football club, about being happy to just avoid relegation. Did you move solely for personal reasons, or was there more to it than that?

LC: I always say what is in my mind - I think that it the best. You might be wrong, or you might be right but at least people know what to expect - honesty.

If at that time I was married and had more people around me at Sunderland, I would not have left the club. I was young, I was the captain of the club and I was proud of that.

When I played at the Stadium of Light every week I was enjoying every second - but privately, it was a really tough time in my mind. If I was married with kids and I had them with me at Sunderland, then it would have been different but I felt like I was missing something in my private life.

I never intended to leave, I was preparing for the second season and I felt physically good, but when I came back the offer from Galatasary was there. I always wanted to play there, but I didn’t think I would go that young.

The offer was good, I had European football in Turkey and my family were closer to me, so I made that choice but it wasn’t easy.

RR: When you think back to your time at the club, what’s the one memory that sticks out?

LC: Many of them to be honest.

That welcome I got at Celtic Park was absolutely unbelievable - some people had not even seen me play very much and just going to warm up and getting that reaction - unbelievable.

That first game at Bolton, 5000 away fans - and it’s not just because it’s English football, because most English football teams don’t take that many fans only away, just Sunderland.

Turning up at the Stadium, the wonderful things people used to say to you before and after the game. I spent a lot of time on the coast and my first month in Durham - people always had a good word for you and appreciated how I played.

The whole experience with the people of Sunderland made the experience fantastic, football is played on the pitch yes, but it was always about the people.

Lorik in Turkey
Galatasaray

RR: Any regrets?

LC: I don’t know if it’s a regret, but I would have liked to have played more games in English football; especially more games in the Stadium of Light.

RR: You only spent a season on Wearside but almost ten years on the fans still absolutely love talking about you, and think so highly of you. Why do you think that is?

LC: Football is the most famous sport in the world. Billions of people love it and they love it because they are passionate about it. Every player is trying to align themselves with that passion and English fans, you can see it was where football started!

Sunderland fans want to live through their values and they want that from the players at the club - giving everything, fighting for every moment to bring forward the identity of the club.

Yes, it’s true every club has that, but in the North East it’s just that little bit more fighting spirit. They would never abandon the team - even when it’s difficult.

This is how I play football. My strength has always been my heart, fighting spirit and never abandoning that - I think they say their values in me and they recognised their mindset in me and that’s why we got along so well.

RR: How would you describe your time at Sunderland in three words?

LC: Passion, identity and love.

Whilst it’s true you can say that about many clubs, the words are easy to say when you think of Sunderland AFC if you know what I mean.