RR: Cheers for having a chat with us John! Nice easy one to begin with. Who was the best player you played with at the club and why?
JO: I’ve been asked this before and it is a hard one.
When I first joined, Kev Phillips was immense. He was the best finisher in the league and the best I have seen. But, since I was a midfielder and from my point of view, I would have to say Claudio Reyna. He was so cool on the ball; nothing flustered him.
He never really got the recognition he deserved, I felt like he was a Busquets type of player, but before he was even around! He was underrated, Claudio. He was a great fella off the pitch too. He was a really good bloke. One of the best I’ve ever played alongside in my entire career, and he just edges Kev because he was a midfielder. He was brilliant.
RR: You came to the club at 20-years-old, so it was a pretty big move to make, especially after only being at Everton for two seasons. What convinced you Sunderland was the right move at the time? Did you know about the move for a while?
JO: Basically I went to Everton for a few years under Howard Kendall but he got sacked about six months after I joined. Anyway, Adrian Heath used to be at Everton and Inchy joined Sunderland after that. He must have told Reidy about me and that’s when the move sort of came about.
I had a brief spell at Everton under Walter Smith originally but then he seemed to go more with experienced players and took the younger lads like Michael Branch, Gavin McCann and Richard Dunne out of the team and cleared the decks. It must have been when it looked like I’d be available, Inchy mentioned me to Reidy and that was that. It all happened pretty quickly.
I actually joined a day before the Chelsea game and I remember thinking how good Sunderland had looked the season before - then I saw on Skysports they’d been hammered 4-0 (laughs). I started on the Tuesday against Watford though and we won 2-0, so it was a good start for me personally.
RR: You came in almost as direct replacement for Allan Johnston, but although you got in the side originally, game time started to become limited. How frustrating was it to watch us do well and not being involved?
JO: I joined when Allan was having the dispute with the club and although he was still at the club, he was training on his own away from the first team in the afternoons. He joined Rangers at the end of the season, as we know.
Of course it’s difficult, but at the time you understand when the team is playing that well and winning so many games - you can’t change that. I was still young at the time too, so it was all an experience. I wasn’t in a position where I could go and knock the door down like a senior pro. You can’t grumble when the lads are smashing Chelsea 4-1.
RR: What were Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton like in the dressing room? There has been plenty said about the vibrant social life on Wearside in those days! How closely knit were the lads, and was there anyone you were particularly close to?
JO: A lot of credit has to go to everyone really. We had such a good dressing room at the time. We had the odd foreign player, but we were primarily a British team with a British mentality - we’d do everything together. It was all about bonding. Reidy, Sacko and Inchy all encouraged it.
I was one of the younger lads at the time with the likes of Paul Thirlwell, Gav McCann, Daz Holloway - all players who were in and around the first team and we’d have a proper laugh. You couldn’t really recreate that. Everything was a social event - but social events at a football club now are different, it’s more you go for a bite to eat whereas back in the day you could go to the races, go for a pint. I think social media plays a huge part because if you go for a few drinks now, socialise and get together within minutes it’s all over social media. It wasn’t like that then.
Two of my best friends from my time in football are lads who were at Sunderland with me - Paul Thirlwell & Don Hutchison - I still speak to them quite a bit even years after.
RR: When Peter Reid got the sack, you had a little bit of a reprieve as Howard Wilkinson brought you back from your loan at Grimsby. Do you think the reputation Howard got for being a little eccentric was deserved or was he just completely different to Reidy?
JO: I did my cruciate ligaments and was out for almost nine months with that and whilst I was out the management had actually changed. Because I was short on game time Paul Groves (manager at Grimsby) invited me down to build my fitness up. I thought “great, that’s perfect!”. I could go home, my Mum can make my tea for a few weeks and I can get some game time - they were in the Championship at the time as well so it was a really good standard. I did better than expected down at Grimsby, I was flying and scored five goals in ten games - so Howard recalled me.
It was really bizarre though because he brought me back, put me in for one game which I felt I played well in, then dropped me again and I never got a chance. I couldn’t understand why he did it!
Howard had a lot of time out of football. I don’t know if the way he managed back when he was successful was the norm perhaps? He was actually quite funny. He comes across as dour, but he was really dry.
RR: Any funny memories of Howard then?
JO: (Laughs) Remember the old porta-cabins they used to have at the Charlie Hurley Centre? Well, he made a hilarious comment that I’ll never forgot to Julio. Just really bizarre.
He set the TV up next to the showers and obviously the seats went all the way around, anyway Julio was sort of on the corner and at any angle where he probably couldn’t see too well and Howard shouts “are you okay Julio? Can you see” - Julio nodded and said “yeah boss, no problem” which in turn Howard just went “you must have eyes like a shit house rat if you can see from there!”
That comment always stayed with me, it was bizarre!
RR: Wilkinson didn’t last very long and Mick McCarthy came into the club as it looked like we were being relegated. You ended up having your best run of form under Mick. What changed in that pre-season for you?
JO: I don’t think it’s ever been talked about or mentioned in the papers to be honest, but if I played another game for the club Sunderland had to pay Everton another £500k. I’m not sure if that was public knowledge, to be honest I didn’t even know about it until then - but that’s why I didn’t really get in the team at the end of the season I think.
Anyway, Kevin Kilbane went to Everton at the beginning of the season and they wrote off that extra fee as part of that deal, and in turn Kev going there helped me get in the team too! So it all worked out for me.
We had the nucleus of a good team and I know people haven’t fond memories of him but if Tore Andre Flo had stayed, I think we would have went on to go up because he was a good player and he would have been excellent at that level. Marcus playing off him at that level - I think it would have worked.
RR: After having a few seasons of not being able to get in the team, you ended up being one of the focal points of a promotion chasing squad. How good did that season feel for you?
JO: Yeah, it was a good season but it was so disappointing the way it ended. It could have been the perfect season - getting to the FA Cup Final and getting promoted but we just fell at the final hurdle. So close in so many ways. So although I felt it was a really good season for me personally it is shrouded in disappointment.
It was a bit of a sickener because I thought we were a better side than Millwall and I felt we could give Manchester United a better game - but that’s football. All in all I did well, but I can’t help but think about those things.
RR: What are your memories of the FA Cup semi-final? It was such a huge day and so bitterly disappointing - if your free kick had crept in, it could have been so different couldn’t it?
JO: As we came out of the tunnel we came out to our fans - even when we came out to warm up the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. The occasion and that fanbase - it was phenomenal.
It was an intense feeling and it’s something that has stuck with me throughout my whole career. It was amazing. The importance of the occasion and the noise, I’ve never had many moments like that in my life. I won the league at Reading of course, but it was over the course of a season whereas that was a singular, intense moment. It was such a choker we couldn’t get it over the line.
I’ve never watched the game back - maybe I’d like to watch it back now because in my head I felt like we were robbed and were the better team. I’d like to watch it back and see if we actually were.
RR: The season ended in further disappointment as we lost the Play-Off semi to Palace on penalties. Your penalty was very, very unlucky, whereas Jeff Whitley’s penalty sent McCarthy into a tantrum! Was he mad in the dressing room or did he calm down?
JO: I don’t remember. Honestly. I’d love to be able to say what happened but I was just disappointed and that disappointment clouds my memories of what was said and what happened. I don’t remember any of it. I remember my penalty hitting the post then rolling across, I remember being in the centre circle when Jeff missed - but honestly I don’t even remember walking into the dressing room afterwards.
I don’t think Jeff meant to do it obviously, it was just the way he did it with the step over - as if he was all calm and collected and then he did that. But what are you going to say to him? Obviously he feels sh*t anyway so what good would shouting at him have done?
RR: Obviously, your career at Sunderland came to an end due to a few disciplinary problems - a few things that seemed to land you in hot bother. What happened? How did Mick Mac handle these situations? Were you disappointed with how it ended?
JO: I got married that summer actually and my contract was up, but I had a good season even though it ended in disappointment and I was settled in the area. Mick offered me a three-year-deal but West Ham were interested in me as well. I had Alan Pardew ringing me to get me to sign for them on my honeymoon - but I wanted to stay at Sunderland.
So I signed a three-year-deal and, to be honest, it started badly football-wise. And, with Mick signing Liam Lawrence and a few other players in my position, I couldn’t get in the team. I wanted to play so I went and spoke to Mick and said I wanted to go out on loan and in came Leeds... and the rest is history, as they say.
Things happened at Leeds and because it was classed as gross misconduct, Sunderland were the ones who had to deal with it as they were the ones I was contracted to. I had just signed a three-year contract and I suppose it was a case of here’s a player with a three year contract who is now surplus to requirements - it was a get out of jail free card really. They ripped up my contract and I went to play for Steve Cotterill at Burnley!
Mick didn’t even speak to me, call me or anything. He’s one of the most honest, upfront managers I’ve came across - so that left a sour taste in the mouth. I was disappointed because it’s not the way Mick ever really was. Maybe someone above him told him not to? I don’t know.
RR: You’ve played with Chris Coleman and Kit Symons before. What are your thoughts on them as characters and are they right for Sunderland?
JO: Personally yes, I was delighted Cookie got the job but right now it’s really, really difficult. I don’t think any manager could do any better than they are doing now with what they have to deal with.
Cookie did a great job at Wales. He galvanised the country after the horrible incident with Gary Speed and people forget he lost his first five games and he turned it around. I hope he can do well because I like him a lot as a person. I’ve never worked under him as a manager, but as a bloke, a person and character - I like him an awful lot.
RR: Finally, is there anything you’d change about your time at Sunderland or career in general?
JO: In my later years, I ended up playing in a midfield three either sitting or to the right of a three. When I was younger because I was tricky, I went on the wing but I wish I had gone into central midfield sooner because it suited me so much better.
Thing is, when I was playing it was a ridged 4-4-2 and I wasn’t the typical type of size and build for a midfield two back then, but as the years went on I realised it suited me better to be in that role, and the English game developed to more formations including three men in the middle.
I played some of my best football at Doncaster under Sean O’Driscoll and I was used in central midfield - so yeah, I wish I’d gone into centre mid before I did.