RR: We played Newcastle and drew 1-1 and then you left the next day, did you know you would be leaving?
DB: I knew just before that game that something was on the cards.
There had been speculation during the week about me going somewhere. But I just couldn’t see, even when my agent mentioned Villa I could not see Sunderland selling me - I thought it wouldn’t matter as it was a non starter and not going to happen.
When Sunderland did accept, it was kinda like well - I scored loads of goals for the club but you’re willing to accept the money.
RR: Can you go through the process of the move, did you go to Birmingham the next day?
DB: Basically... the two owners were talking about trying to get a deal done. I think initially someone contacted my agent who I knew beforehand, it was a guy who was close with me at Charlton. He worked for Villa and he contacted my agent and was like “will Darren be interested in coming to Villa.” And I think my agent called me and I said “I can’t really see it happening so I am not gonna think about it.”
He called me back a few days later on the Thursday and he said that “Villa are gonna contact Sunderland and find out the cost so they are still talking”.
I was like “oh right” and on the next day, on the Friday my agent called me and said “Sunderland have said they want £24 million for you” - I remember this bit so vividly and laughing my head off thinking it would never happen, they are never gonna pay £24m.
I laughed it off to my mate and said I needed to go to sleep as I had training early the next morning! It was about 11.30 at night and my agent said that Villa are willing to pay the £24m. And the first thing I asked was what are Sunderland saying and whether they were going to accept it.
He said “I think so, they said if they get £24m they will let me go.” It annoyed me and put me on the back foot because if I was that important to the football club and where we are going and you are willing to sell me to Aston Villa who are struggling at the time it should be a non starter - but they were happy to take the money.
I then played the game on the Sunday and then it was only when I was about to sign for Villa that I get a phone call - we aren’t gonna put this move through till you hand a transfer request in.
Every Sunderland fan thinks that I wanted to leave and it was so far from the case.
RR: Was Bruce happy for you to leave?
DB: He did not even know because we played the Newcastle game on the Sunday, and I am upstairs with my dad and Bruce is none the wiser.
Basically I am about to leave the stadium and the fitness guy comes running up the stairs and said: “Oh Darren the gaffer wants to speak to you.”
Bruce then said when I walked in, “what is this I am hearing about you going to Aston Villa?” I was like... surely you have been talking to the owners about what is happening.
He said “listen I don’t want you to leave for Villa, you are better than that. Take as long as you want to think about it, take a couple of days off. But I don’t want you to go, you are key to how we play” and stuff like that.
It was a tough time at the time, it was unfair on him as he was in a no-win situation.
RR: What was Niall Quinn saying?
DB: He was involved in the deal as well.
That is what annoyed me, which I understand as no player is more important than the club. I get why they made me hand a request in as it made me take the backlash from them.
But obviously not once did I make it common knowledge that I wanted to go in there hand in a request and want to leave.
I only had to hand a request in after I had accepted the deal to sign for Aston Villa.
RR: I remember at the time that one of the reasons you moved was because of your England aspirations? At Sunderland it didn’t seem to matter how many goals you scored, you never seemed to get international recognition.
DB: No, at the time when I was at Sunderland I was happy and things were going really well. Even that second season I had 12 goals already up to Christmas. So things were going really well and I was happy.
It kinda left a bitter taste in my mouth that they were accepting the money.
I didn’t even think about England - playing wise or nothing. It never crossed my mind. I was always a firm believer that if I keep scoring the option would come.
RR: Did you find it frustrating that when you were at Sunderland, Fabio Capello refused to give you a chance?
DB: Yeah, to be fair I find it a bit disrespectful to Sunderland as he was kinda saying that while you’re at Sunderland I can’t play you - he never said it outright, but that is how it felt.
I played the Brazil game in Qatar and it was really hot. It was one of the hardest games I had ever played in. It was strange, I didn’t play for England that much when I was at Sunderland but when I moved to Villa that was it - I was his number 9.
RR: Were you surprised by the fan reaction when you came back with Villa?
DB: Yeah, 100%. The way it was made to look that I chased the money and I wanted to get out of there... it was so far from the truth.
I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was, with the banners and the songs and the chants. It was tough to take. It was really really tough to take.
Even last season when I went back with Burton it was tough to take and hard. At the end of the day they are fans and they are passionate about their football club.
It is just one of them things.
RR: How does it feel when you see how upset people still to this day are about you leaving the club?
DB: If I could go back and apologise to every Sunderland fan that heckled me over the years I would.
At the same time, it was never about me wanting to leave and chase the money.
Certain situations arose and as I have said before, the club could have said no. They could have said “look Darren we have had Villa on, but we are not going to sell you” I would have said fine and got on with it.
RR: Looking back, would you say that the move away was a mistake?
DB: When I left in January that first half of the season at Villa was one of the best I played. I scored a lot of goals for Villa and I was fantastic. Working with Houllier, it went really really well.
The following season I was flying again. I had 12 goals up until Christmas and then got a big injury leading to the next World Cup - I played in all the internationals and scored four in four. Things were going really well on the England front.
Then I get injured and Paul Lambert came in and it was never the same. For the first year at Villa I was flying again and things were going really well.
After the injury and when Lambert came in, that was it, it was never the same.
RR: Were you ever the same player after the injury? As it seemed that you lost that goalscoring spark that you had before that?
DB: Maybe, you’re right that I was never quite the same - even mentally on the pitch for Sunderland I always thought I was gonna score.
My mindset changed after the whole thing with Lambert and going from there - before you know it you are getting on and your career is heading towards the end.
You wonder... where has it all gone?
RR: Despite the fact you left under a bit of a cloud, how do you look back at your time with the club? With fondness? Sadness?
DB: The best year and a half I had playing football was at Sunderland.
Everything fell into place as far as living, the people were brilliant, I made really good friends at the football club who I still speak to now. On the pitch was fantastic.
As I said, the only thing that would have made it even better was if I got the international recognition when I was playing there which I deserved.
You can’t score 25 goals in the PL and not go to a World Cup. It is crazy!
RR: When you left the club, and Henderson soon after, we never seemed to recover from that. That came together when you scored the goal that pretty much relegated us last season - do you look back at Sunderland and wonder if you kept the team together that something really big would have been built?
DB: Potentially, who knows? I may have left further down the line.
Jordan Henderson was destined to go to the top. It is no surprise that he is at Liverpool. I remember talking to him at Sunderland, he always had the potential. Pickford as well, you could see it. It was no surprise to me.
Henderson, you knew how hard he worked in training and the effort he put in that he was destined to go somewhere. Whether it be Liverpool, United or someone else big.
He was always going to be a big player.
RR: You’re still in the market for a new club, are you hoping you’ll find one soon?
DB: I would love to still play, if an opportunity came along I would love to play. I enjoy the TV stuff, but you can’t beat playing. If the opportunity came up - 100%!
RR: Would you entertain a move to Sunderland or do you think that ship has sailed?
DB: I would be up there in three hours!
RR: Do you keep an eye on Sunderland?
DB: It has been good to be fair. We are up there and we will go up. The size of the club and the support you guys have got - you should go up. We will be back in the Premier League. It might take a little bit of time but we will definitely do it.