RR: Thanks for chatting with us Nicky! I normally start off by asking who the best player was your played alongside, but instead, I’m curious...who was the best drinker in the squad?
NS: Alex Rae was a good drinker but the best person if you got him on the right day - because obviously he’s sensible - is Quinny. He drinks pints of Guinness like it’s nothing. Because he’s a big bugger, you couldn’t fill him up.
We had a good drinking squad, but it’s a different game now. The players just don’t do it nowadays, back then we were encouraged to go out and that’s what created the team spirit that saw us do so well.
RR: It wasn’t Mickey Gray then?
NS: Mickey was useless! Lightweight! He’s in better trim now then when he played football though. He’s fitter than ever! He’s had a hair transplant, the Beverley Hills smile and the tan. He’s not the lad from Castletown anymore with his California haircut!
RR: Going back all the way to a few months before you joined, you actually played in the opening league game at the SOL for Manchester City. Did you have any idea you’d end up here within weeks?
NS: I needed to leave City to be honest because I wasn’t getting in the team and there was a bit of an atmosphere down there. Obviously when I went up to Sunderland and played in the new stadium I thought “Woah. I wouldn’t mind playing here”, but never really thought it would happen.
Things weren’t going well at City in general, we’d been relegated and all that. They really wanted Craig Russell and that engineered my move to the club. For me to go to Sunderland - a new stadium and a club on the up was perfect for me.
I’m obviously a Manchester lad and I wanted to play for City, play in the Manchester derbies and things like that but my Dad is a legend at Manchester City and there was always going to be a comparison for me being his son - going to Sunderland released that pressure and I could go to a club, be my own person and express myself. I moved at exactly the right time. The club was on the up with new state of the art stadium. It was exactly what I needed.
RR: We weren’t doing that well when you signed for the club, but we managed to hammer Portsmouth 4-1 at Fratton Park on your debut and you managed to nab the last goal. After that we just seemed to go on this incredible run! Why did it work so well for you and the club straight away do you think?
NS: Sometimes you go to a club and it’s right. The players gel and it everything works. Personally, I had played in the Premier League and I wanted to go back there. I had something to prove after being relegated.
I started my career as a sort of wing back however I wasn’t that strong at defending, but when I went to Sunderland they wanted me to be an out-and-out winger which suited me perfectly. Having Quinny with his size and Kevin Phillips there was great as a winger.
I was an acquired taste because I looked lazy, I had the big shorts on and the long strides and I probably looked a bit lethargic to the eye, but once the Sunderland crowd got to know me and what I brought to the team they got right behind me and embraced me - I’d never really had that before.
RR: You say about some fans thinking you were lazy at the beginning - but you didn’t have to take your man on to get the ball on Quinny’s head did you?
NS: When I was at City, I had Peter Beagrie on one side and he had a bag of tricks but he’d tie himself in knots sometimes. Johnno (Allan Johnston) had loads of tricks too and to the eye it looks like they’re doing loads more, but we’re both effectively doing the same thing - getting a good cross in. I didn’t have to beat somebody. I had bloody duck’s feet so if a full back was ten yards or so away I could just swing it in. If the winger got wise to it and got tight to me, then I could just knock it past him and get it in.
It always took a bit of time at clubs for people to see what I was like. You have players that have bag loads of pace and they can bomb past a man but they can’t put a bloody ball in.
RR: We have to talk about the Play Off final - what a game. What were your memories of that day, and what is it like to score for Sunderland at Wembley?
NS: It was brilliant to play at Wembley. I had played with Swindon a few seasons before where we were 3-0 up, but they pulled it back to 3-3, but we got a penalty at the end and won it 4-3. So I’d been to Wembley before.
We didn’t start well. We were ahead of them in the league and I think we thought we’d turn up and win the game and it wasn’t the case, so it took us till after half time to get going and once we did it just felt like one of those days where you felt it wasn’t happening for you. It just had that feeling the more the game went on.
RR: Would you do anything different if you could replay that game?
NS: I wouldn’t change what happened. Niall Quinn said in the dressing room when you could hear them next door celebrating “we’ll come back next season and smash this league” and we never looked back from that. It set the tone and that’s exactly what we did.
My Dad still talks about it now, but at that Play-off semi final against Sheffield United the atmosphere was electric. He was sat in the stands with Graeme Souness that night and he said he’d never heard an atmosphere like it - you could tell straight straight away Sheffield United couldn’t handle it and they just crumbled. It carried on the season after. Teams would come to the Stadium of Light and they’d be intimidated by the crowd. Teams couldn’t handle it and it went on into the Premier League because they’d come here and they just didn’t fancy it.
Sunderland fans are not hard to please. They just want hard working players that get stuck in and create opportunities. You don’t need to be too flashy and all that, they just need to be players that enjoy their football and give their all and they’ll get behind you and once you get that crowd on your side it’s one of the best places to play your football.
RR: You were the first to step up in the penalty shoot out. Talk to me about what goes through your head, especially with it being the first spot kick of a draining match?
NS: All I was thinking was “if I place it and get it wrong...” so I just thought pick a spot and hit in. I brought it down to basics. My worst nightmare would have been what Mickey did, trying to place it. I just wanted to smash it and I hit it perfect. It was a good penalty and I hit it true.
It’s surreal because it’s one of those moments you dream of growing up wanting to be a professional footballer, you’ve got 80k people there and as you’re walking up you can hear the ball resting on the grass like it’s your back garden! You can hear the players breathing, the ball on the grass - it’s an odd one. You don’t think that’s going to happen when you play it out in your head.
Chrissy Makin’s penalty trickled in didn’t it? It’s funny when you watch it back because he does this sort of jolt, some sort of boxing move and the lads took the p**s out of him for that.
RR: We had a great team spirit, full of characters back then. What was said in the dressing room in the interim between the Play-Off Final defeat and the start of our title winning season?
NS: Nothing was really said after what Quinny said in the dressing room. We just worked hard in the training and knew it was crucial we started the season well and we did. We knew we had to put it right and we started off really well so the crowd was behind us straight away. We had our confidence.
Once we left Wembley, it was gone and it was all about putting it right and making sure we get promoted. Bally was huge as a captain, bringing everyone together. Quinny was brilliant, you had Kevin banging them in. It all just gelled. Once we got to Christmas and got through that period it was just a case of keeping it going and we did.
We just blitzed it.
RR: How instrumental were Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton in creating that team?
NS: They worked together well. Sacko was a proper straight talking Yorkshireman. When there were bollockings to be given out they were. There was nothing special with the training, it was basic, a lot of repetition so you knew what you were doing - something I believed in.
It was all about the team spirit with them. A lot of going out, a lot of team meals together, having a laugh and keeping that team bond strong.
I remember we got beat down at Watford before we went up and Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton said they wanted us in the next day, of course you thought we were going to be getting a telling off but when we got in he had eight or nine bottles of champagne waiting there for us and it was all about chilling out, forgetting the defeat and building that team spirit.
Bobby was a massive part of that, Cookie was too. We had a great backroom staff full of banter. If you bought a pair of new trainers or some new gear, you knew you were going to be getting stick and it was great! It keeps you going.
They worked well, the pair of them. You knew where you stood with Bobby. You couldn’t take it easy on the pitch, because you knew if it wasn’t Bobby getting on at you, it would be Reidy and it pushed you.
Sunderland was the place to be then. The youth team was top of the league, the reserve team was top of the league and the first team was top as well. The whole place was buzzing.
RR: You had a huge part to play in the 2-1 win at St. James in the rain. We all remember it well, but we were losing 1-0 at half time and Newcastle where the better side. What was said in that dressing room second half that changed the game?
NS: I remember the first goal and I think I played Dyer onside!
Nothing was really said, it was just determination to beat them - it’s such a massive rivalry. Bloody hell. You have to live in the area to really understand it. When we used to go out, you’d see the Newcastle players and we all used to think they were big time Charlies and we just thought “we really want to beat them once we go up” and that was our determination.
The weather was right, everything felt good, Shearer was on the bench and we knew we were strong, difficult to play against and had that determination. We know we could score goals with Quinny and Kevin there and we knew it would come - we just really wanted to beat them.
It ended up being a fantastic night, it was a brilliant night that. The win was huge for us, it was huge for the fans, but we never panicked even when they scored - we knew we could win it. What a goal it was from Kevin to win it as well. I was buzzing that night.
RR: Statistically, you and David Beckham were far and wide the two most potent crossers of the ball in the league. Did you feel like you deserved more recognition for that?
NS: I needed to do it over the course of a few seasons. It’s nice that people say I was up there with Beckham and all that - that’s enough for me.
It’s nice that it’s said but I just wish I could have done it longer at Sunderland. I wanted to stay there for a long time. I had the crowd on my side. I’d have liked to stay longer, everything felt right for me there. People understood my game, the forwards understood my game. I needed to do it over a couple of seasons though and I wish that could have been at Sunderland for longer.
If I’d done it for a few more years maybe I could grumble, but no not at all - I had a good couple of seasons and if I’d been there longer maybe I’d have had more recognition.
RR: A really bad moment in your career was the Ben Thatcher elbow incident. Had anything been said to each other beforehand that made him give you that elbow? Did you speak to him afterwards?
NS: I saw him a few times after and he’s never spoke. What made it worse is he did it to a few other people after that.
With me, I used to wind people up. I was fantastic at it and in that particular game I got caught out! Look, if through my career all I got was a good elbow I’ll take that, some lads get broken legs. I used to get really into people, winding them right up and that particular time I was talking when I should have been listening type of thing (laughs).
That’s it - it what football is all about. I played the next week and you crack on. I used to love winding people up and he caught me with a cracker, but you get little tickles and that. You move on.
It was Bouldy’s fault (laughs). He sent me a hospital pass and I went to get it, next thing I know I’m walloped, the foul isn’t given and they go up the other end of the pitch and score!
RR: I know there was a lot of talk around the Melanie Sykes incident, but you still played after that yet, in the summer of 2000 a bid was accepted from Bradford for you, you rejected the move and Reidy pretty much ignored you for six months. Did Peter Reid ever give you a reason why he decided to play you?
NS: Nah, I think that was the end (when he rejected the move). A few people said I rejected a contract, but I was never offered one. Bradford were in the Premier League at the time and were throwing money at it - but I didn’t care who it was, I wanted to stay at Sunderland. I might not have started at first, but I would have fought to get into the team.
The lads went on a pre-season tour and I was training with the youth team and I was dejected because I thought I wasn’t going to be getting into the team, so I probably wasn’t training as well as usual, then Reidy came and said I was going to be playing in the opening game against Arsenal but I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t in shape - I had done no pre-season. I would have looked unfit, out of shape. The fans know I wouldn’t refuse to play, but that’s how it was portrayed. That where it all went wrong, it was a disaster for me.
I was playing the best football of my career and my confidence was up, then I’m suddenly looking for new clubs and trying to get my career back on track. It just came to at end for some reason and I don’t know why. I hoped I’d get a new contract for what I’d done but it never came. It was just a nightmare.
I thought I’d have been at Sunderland for a long, long time.
RR: You played for Sam Allardyce for a short time when you left us to go to Bolton. How was he as a manager?
NS: He was very deep. He did a lot of psychological work and was very thorough. He did an awful lot of his homework. My mindset was I thought I was a lot better than I was, when you drop down a division and you’ve been playing in the Premier League then you want to get back there as you feel it’s your level.
Allardyce is a great manager, you can see he’s a great manager. I thought when he went to Sunderland from what I saw I thought he got the place rocking again. He was very much a Peter Reid type of manager and he was great for the club. I saw when he kept Sunderland up and he had the crowd bouncing - and like I said, once that crowd is behind you, it’s something else.
RR: In the scope of your career, you played for some big, big clubs - but where would you place your time at Sunderland in that?
NS: I played my best football at Sunderland. I played at City of course and both clubs are massive with huge fan bases but for me it’s Sunderland because that’s the place it happened for me.
It was a great place to live, a brilliant stadium to play in and we had some fantastic times there. Sunderland was my fondest period in football. My confidence was sky high and football is all about confidence. I loved the fans and the staff. At Sunderland I felt like I could do anything. It didn’t get any better than Sunderland.
I loved seeing when Sunderland played City at Wembley in the cup final because I think the nation saw what Sunderland was all about. I think people started realising how massive that club is and what it can give you, potential managers saw what they’d have behind them. It’s difficult at the moment, but it will get going again.
RR: What’s your thoughts on the club nowadays?
NS: You have to understand what the area is all about, what the people is all about. You have to adapt to that area and I’ve spoken to Mickey (Gray) about this many times. He’s passionate about Sunderland and I’ve told him it’s time to stop talking and go and get his coaching badges. He’s a lad from Castletown and he gets it. You need people in that club who embrace it and understand it.
The club needs clearing out, there are too many people who’ve been there too long on too much money and that why they are where they are. It’s been going on quite some time now. Hopefully they don’t go down, but if they do maybe they can clear it out and have a bit of a party season and get that confidence back.
I think Chris Coleman has probably gone into the club and wasn’t aware of just how bad things are, but it won’t take much to get that club going again, once you turn it around and get into pre-season and get the belief back in the crowd you’ve got something massive there. That’s what you’ve got to do at Sunderland, get the crowd going.
This situation has been going on for far too long and it needs to turn around - and it will.