Not very often do Sunderland stumble across the signing of a genuinely top-class striker in their prime. Most of the people reading this will immediately think back to legendary figures such as Marco Gabbiadini, Kevin Phillips and Jermain Defoe - but, in terms of his scoring record in a red and white shirt at least, the name of Darren Bent sits right there amongst them in the record books as one of Sunderland’s most deadly post-war goalscorers.
Bent’s legacy at Sunderland, unfortunately, isn’t one that fans recall fondly. Despite scoring 36 goals in 63 games for the club, Bent is remembered better for the circumstances around his departure - with Sunderland placed high up the Premier League table, a shock big-money move to Aston Villa occurred and, despite enjoying the best football of his career on Wearside, Bent left the admiration of the Sunderland people behind when he headed off to the Midlands to join up with former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier.
That was almost eight years ago and, in truth, Bent hasn’t really spoken at great length about his time at Sunderland - not publicly at least, until now.
Here, in part one of our exclusive conversation with the former England forward, we focus solely on Darren’s beginnings and success in a red and white shirt - how he came to arrive at the club, hitting the ground running, the adulation that followed, his ambition to stay longer than he did, his favourite games and more.
RR: Hello Darren! Thanks for joining me today. Let’s start with you signing for Sunderland - what was it about your time at Spurs that made you think that it was the best time to leave?
DB: I just think that with the two seasons I had with Spurs, I just wanted to go somewhere to be fair where it was all about football. I spoke to Steve Bruce as he phoned me up just after the season was finished and he asked me one question: “Will you come to Sunderland?” and I said “yeah, 100%” - so from that one conversation with him I knew straight away where I wanted to go.
For him to call up so early and identify he wanted me to go there, I was like yeah 100%!
RR: I remember following the story when I was on holiday and you were tweeting about wanting to play for Sunderland over Hull and Stoke. At the time, people assumed that Daniel Levy was messing Sunderland and you around. What can you tell us about that process and how it was handled?
DB: It was very very long. I just remember I was flown to China for pre-season with Spurs and they kept saying the deal was close, so I thought that I wouldn’t be travelling to Hong Kong and China as I would be signing the next day.
Obviously I did not sign for Sunderland until I got back for ten days maybe, and they still hadn’t sorted it.
Then I sent the tweet out through frustration towards him.
I ended up signing for Sunderland on the Thursday, played against Hearts on the Saturday in one pre-season game and then that’s it, we started the season on the Saturday. It annoyed me that they waited so long to get the deal done as you want to get in there for pre-season and get to know the place and your teammates.
RR: Did you nearly sign for Sunderland prior to this?
DB: No, there was a lot of speculation about that when Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy were in charge but it was never that close to be fair. I hadn’t really entertained it.
I had spoke to Alan Curbishley before that and I knew I was going there.
RR: You did of course sign for the club when Steve Bruce was manager. We’ve spoken to many of the players from that time and it’s a fairly mixed bag in terms of what they had to say, but how did you find playing for Brucey?
DB: I loved it. I mean he was arguably in charge during the most prolific years of my life.
For me he was good like. I understand why people would say that they didn’t like him because when I was flying he maybe saw me differently to the guys who weren’t playing and getting angry.
You are always gonna get a difference of opinion on managers in every changing room.
He was brilliant with me, him and his staff - Eric Black was arguably in the top two of coaches I had ever worked with.
RR: What was Kenwyne Jones like on and off the pitch?
DB: He was good to be fair.
I have said to people before that when I went to Sunderland that the chemistry between the guys on and off the pitch, they were always doing stuff together, was probably the best club I had been at for that.
So obviously it transpired on the pitch with me and Kenwyne as we got on off the pitch, so on the pitch it came naturally. He was brilliant to play up front with.
RR: You quite literally hit the ground running - that first season was amazing as you scored 24 goals. Why do you think you were able to perform at such a high level straight away? Did you want to prove people wrong that had doubted you in the past?
DB: I think I was just frustrated.
I was so annoyed with how Spurs had come about and ended. And obviously how I had been portrayed by Tottenham as a football club and stuff like that, once I signed for Sunderland I felt like I had to prove myself again.
I felt like people were doubting me and questioning whether Sunderland should sign me.
When I got there Steve Bruce said that I needed to use it as motivation as I had something to prove. I felt like that when I first came to the Premier League - can he score against the big teams? Can he score consistently? Can he score for England?
RR: That opening day against Bolton away, there was 5,000 Sunderland fans there, you obviously scored the winner. How was that?
DB: For me, I knew how big and passionate the north east clubs were, but the fact there was 5,000 fans there was insane. 5,000 away fans!
That showed me straight away how much football meant to Sunderland and the fans.
RR: How does that first season rank when you look back over your career?
DB: Yeah, that and my first year at Charlton were my best years.
But I have to say the Sunderland year was the best and most satisfying just because I had a point to prove and I did that.
I scored a lot of goals and showed people I could score again. People talk now about scoring against the top four, but I did that for Sunderland on numerous occasions.
RR: Talk us through the beach-ball goal against Liverpool… did you realise you’d hit something when the ball was travelling towards goal?
DB: Yeah, I knew straight away, because of how well we were playing at the time and how much we deserved to win that game as we deserved to be 4/5/6 goals up, we were that good!
That it didn’t even phase me when it went in, I didn't even think “oh my god it hit a beach ball” I thought here is a goal and I ran off celebrating.
The referee asked me at half time - “what did that hit?” I remember me saying “it hit the beach ball” and he was like “really? really?” and he was panicking because it should never of counted, but obviously it had never had happened before so he never expected it to happen or know how to react!
RR: You scored two against Spurs at home and missed two penalties in what was one of the best games that the Stadium of Light has ever seen. Just how up for that game were you? What were your emotions like having suffered the disappointment of missing two penalties yet tucking two goals away regardless?
DB: Do you know what? In my whole time at Sunderland that game there was the most passionate game I have ever played in and the most angry I was before a game.
Obviously with Harry Redknapp being in charge of Spurs and how I left and stuff like that. I missed the penalty earlier that season at their place and Gomes saved it. When I had two in the first 12 minutes or something I felt a hat trick was coming at some stage.
I scored from a corner and then a penalty afterwards, and then missed the two which was crazy... I could have had four which was mad! As far as that game goes I always think about it because it was that good.
It had everything, three penalties, Bolo’s goal! What a game to play in.
RR: Had the Spurs fans been giving you sh*t in the build up to the game? I seem to remember your celebration [pretending his hand was a talking mouth]...
DB: Yeah they did which is why I started doing that. That is why I did it as they were giving me all sorts like, I think that is what angered me before that game as I read this stupid argument that all I did was just score one goal per game and nothing else.
I was like, hold on a second here, if I am scoring in every game it doesn’t matter. It was little things like that which annoyed me before the game.
I had a conversation with my dad before the game and he said ‘listen, don’t let it bother you before the game just use it as a motivational tool’ - it obviously went really well.
RR: You mentioned Harry Redknapp before - was your relationship with him damaged after he said his wife could have scored a chance you missed?
DB: At the time it bothered me because obviously I missed a chance.
He said that his wife could have scored that, which was fair enough as I should have scored it. It was a damaged relationship for a little bit, but to be fair after that happened he still played me the next week against Bolton and he played me for the rest of that season until I got injured.
I was top scorer that season, so it did not damage the relationship but it was something at the time that was unnecessary. At the same time, you live and learn and I think more people made more of it after the game than we did in the building.
RR: The next season we signed Gyan and Welbeck, and the partnership between the three of you seemed to click. How good were they to play with?
DB: Yeah they were good. It was an awkward one to be fair as once we signed them they were good. Asamoah had a brilliant World Cup and at first it was strange as I didn’t know how it would work, as we often played with just me up top and then Kenwyne left, so we didn’t know how it would work.
There were times you could get all three of us on the pitch at the same time which made us very dangerous. It was good to see how we developed together.
Obviously Danny Welbeck was always going to be good.
I never thought he would be a prolific goal scorer and he has showed that he isn’t now, but he had the ability to do really well and it is no surprise that he is playing for a club like Arsenal. It was good playing with them three and it gave Brucey options.
RR: How good was that team in 2010/11?
DB: I think the team in the first season was better than the team in the second season.
The team in the first half of that first season was brilliant. When you think about Lorik Cana who was unbelievable in that first part for us. Steed Malbranque, you know what I mean? As a team we were so much better and we were as a team in that first season more than the second.
RR: You played against Newcastle in the 5-1, what was that day like for you?
DB: It was awful. It was one of the worst memories I have had in football.
I heard so much about it in the build up and then it was just terrible to be fair.
RR: I recall you saying that you wanted to be the next Kevin Phillips, did you, at that time, see yourself playing at Sunderland for the rest of your career?
DB: Yeah, I felt that I would be there for a long time. I didn’t see myself leaving. I wasn’t going to go anywhere as I had such a good time and I loved it.
RR: Kieran Richardson said in a recent interview with us that you think the best time in your career was at Sunderland, is that true?
DB: Yeah, he is definitely telling the truth. Everything about my performance was good. All the people were so friendly when I lived there. When I played there and things were going well the Sunderland fans could make you feel like you were walking on water.
As far as that goes, spending time with the boys and living there and playing - it was the perfect scenario for me.
RR: Tell us a bit about Kieran - he was loved here. Was he the player you were closest to at the club?
DB: Yeah, I am still close to Kieran, Fraizer Campbell and Anton Ferdinand. Kieran was one of them players that because he was very good in every position he couldn’t nail down that one position. He went to left back and was brilliant, he went to center midfield and was brilliant, he could play no 10.
He was one of them guys that was so good but could never nail a position.