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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... Former Sunderland midfielder, Gary Owers! (Part One)

Gary Owers was a key part of “Denis Smith’s Red & White Army”. In Part One of our sit down interview, he tells Roker Report about the role he played in the Sunderland team that rose from Division Three to the top flight.

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RR: Thanks for taking time out your day to chat with us, Gary! First of all, how’s it all going at Torquay?

GO: Tough. Tough, but we’re digging in; trying to scrape ourselves out of a bad position.

When I came in at the end September, we hadn’t won in 10 or 11 games. We’ve won a few more, but not enough. It’s been tough from day one, but I’m enjoying it; it’s a challenge. But we want to get out of trouble, really.

RR: You’ve been in and around football since you retired from playing...

GO: I’ve always had jobs. I’ve done well in recruitment and made some clubs some big sums on the recruitment side, both in England and up north of the border. I’ve been in and out of coaching, too, so I’ve got plenty of experience on all fronts, really.

RR: Fancy giving it a go up the road?

GO: I’d love to go up there and work for them; I’d love to work for Sunderland at some point.

Torquay United v Sutton United - Vanarama National League
Owers is now manager of Vanarama National League side Torquay United
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

RR: Where do you think it’s all gone wrong?

GO: You have to look at recent history. You have to understand that for three or four seasons in a row they got out of trouble late in the season by changing the manager and they never really fixed the problem, I don’t think.

It’s the timing and the amount of managers they’ve had; the timing of when the managers have arrived – it’s been late in the season – and the timing of when the managers have left. It’s been papering over the cracks. Sam was a good appointment, but he left for other reasons. You can’t blame him, but Moyes came in with as good a track record as anyone.

They are big names in British coaching, but the club needs a good look at from top to bottom. The supporters are suffering and it breaks my heart. When you see the pictures on the highlights, it’s not giving a true picture of the supporters and their passion for the club.

It was just about the quick fix and they didn’t really address what I think is always a big problem, which is the recruitment side of things. So it’s caught them out, unfortunately. When you get on that downward spiral you have to stop it as fast as you can. I hope Chris can still get them out of trouble; get to the summer, re-evaluate and get Sunderland back to where they belong.

RR: You have a long history with the club, despite being a Newcastle lad! You started with us when you were about 13...

GO: Well you can’t help where you’re born! But, yeah, I was just in secondary school, about 13 years old, when I was picked up by Sunderland. Thirty odd year ago! Its’s scary.

RR: Roker Park must have become your second home!

GO: I’ve been back up and driven round where the ground used to be and I just can’t believe it’s not there anymore. You see the Roker pie shop on the corner and then, well, it’s just not there! How can it be, that the place just isn’t there anymore?

Y’know, you go round speaking to players and the opposing teams and they all loved coming to Roker Park with the atmosphere – it was special.

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RR: You’ll be remembered by most as an energetic midfielder, but you didn’t always play that role during your time at the club...

GO: In the early days, I played left wing. I made my debut as a left winger at Brentford away. I remember my debut where I was just this young lad thinking “Denis - he’s going to play me!”

I’d played all pre-season for him. Denis said he’d tried to sign me on loan the season before, when he was at York. I was close to playing under Lawrie, but I broke my arm. Even at such a young age, I felt I might get a chance, but that injury set me back.

Under Denis, though, I was part of the team for the whole of that season and I mainly played left wing. Denis would play me anywhere really to get me into the team.

Later on, I played down the right hand side. Probably because of my energy, the manager tended to pick me wherever he needed me – I played right back, left back, central midfield.

But I would definitely say, especially as I got older, that central midfield was my position. I was just happy to be playing.

RR: Denis helped to get you started, professionally, in a position remarkably similar to where the club finds itself now.

GO: It was the same. Lawrie came in - big name manager with big name players – and it just didn’t happen. The season before it, we got out of it, but the club didn’t address it and we got caught again.

Then Denis came in, but he created a totally different situation with the young lads. He recruited a few new players and within two or three seasons, we were back in the top flight.

It was important to get out of Division Three at the first time of asking, cos God knows what would’ve happened if we’d lingered in there. It was passion that got us out. We were a really big fish in a small pond in them days. But we had a small squad and we only had one sub in those days. It was a young squad; probably more than half the team came out of the reserves and youth team - local lads with the passion of the club at heart.

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RR: You mentioned Denis adding a few new faces and one of those was Marco. How was he, when he arrived?

GO: He made the difference, really. He was a young lad; very confident in himself. He had strong opinions and liked to be centre of attention in the dressing room. Get him one on one and he was a lovely bloke, though. On his day, at the time, there wasn’t anyone better. On a good day, he was unplayable – the real modern day striker with pace and power. Calves like an elephant, too!

Gatesy made him better, though. Gatesy was like - well, he had been part of a team that had failed, really - but his quality shone through. Eric was a terrific bloke – he looked after me in the dressing room, as a young kid coming through. He looked out for me.

But he made it simple for us on the pitch. I still remember him saying “if you get the ball and you don’t look to pass it to me first, I’m gonna absolutely hammer you! It’s alright if you don’t pass it to us, but if you don’t look at me first, you’re gonna get it!” He made it easy. You gave the ball to Eric and he made you look good as well.

I always thought he’d have made a great coach, with his experience and personality, but I don’t think you can do much coaching when the 2:30 from Wetherby’s running! His coaching would have ended when the first race started. He wasn’t the only one like that -Bobby Ferguson was like that. Bobby’d be running off the training ground shouting “you can do some shooting if you want - I’m gonna watch the race!”

RR: You also mentioned the fact Denis got us all the way to the First Division. Of course we made it in dramatic fashion through the play-offs and beating Newcastle United on their patch...

GO: My biggest and best game was that play-off game against Newcastle. We had a great night, the way everything panned out. At the end it was some sight - sixty people jumping on the team bus and then us lot, walking into the nightclub with the turquoise tops & white trousers. We looked good under the neon lights!

But it was unprecedented - a play-off game against your biggest rivals. They’d all written us off, given us no chance. Everyone thought they were going through. But it was a brilliant game; the atmosphere and everything. The best night of my life in terms of football. Just unbelievable.

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RR: It almost wasn’t, as the home fans tried to get the game abandoned by invading the pitch and breaking the goalposts.

GO: We’d been told somewhere along the line that it might happen so it wasn’t a massive shock. The first one wasn’t too bad, but the second one was like “let’s get off here as quickly as possible”. I mean looking back it’s hilarious –someone gets a kick up the arse, John MacPhail gets a clip round the ear. It’s almost comical looking at it now but at the time it wasn’t so funny.

The biggest regret about that game was the fact we didn’t really get a chance to go and celebrate with the supporters at the end. The police wouldn’t let us out. I look at the pictures now and you see so many fans crammed into that end and it’s just amazing.

RR: We went up despite losing to Swindon in the final. Maybe the club wasn't fully prepared for promotion, but we almost stayed up. That season came down to a couple of games that I’ll never forget – Arsenal at home and Man City away.

GO: You look back and we were close. Like you say, we played Arsenal and we had chances; I had chances. I bent that one in the top corner and Seaman tips it round the post. I think it’s in his book, page 127, saying it was one of the best saves he’d ever made. If that’d gone in, we might have stayed up.

We were close – we were just a bunch of kids, really. We got through on energy and will and desire. Denis brought Brace in and Davenport at the start of the season, but we possibly missed an experienced centre half to play with Benno – I always thought Benno was a great player for Sunderland; really top class.

It was great playing at Roker Park. The Stadium of Light isn’t the same; it’s not the Fulwell End – all the people crammed in and it’d sway from side to side. I was really lucky; lucky to experience that and the amount of times I did – I never took it for granted. Loads of happy memories.

RR: And Maine Road, which we practically turned into a home game!

GO: It was mental. We went into that last game with 15,000 Sunderland fans at Maine Road. I’d gone from playing central midfield, again, to being switched to right back. We started the game absolutely flying out of the traps. We went a goal up but we lost the game and got relegated. But really, I felt we were good enough to stay up. As I say, we probably just didn’t have enough experience in the side, at the end of the day.

That wasn’t the only big away following, though. I also remember Derby, when we took 8,000.

RR: In his autobiography, Denis said, following relegation, he had to raise funds to rebuild the side and that meant he had to sell Marco – was that as much a shock to the players as it was for the fans?

GO: No, it wasn’t a shock; not for me anyway, cos I was supposed to go with him! That was the shock - that I didn’t go with him.

Whatever million it was that had been agreed, it included Paul Bodin coming the other way, from Crystal Palace. So it was all set up - me & Marco were both going to Palace. But then Denis pulled me in and said “your deal’s off because Paul Bodin doesn’t want to come to the North-East”. A week later he signed for Newcastle!

I remember we played Palace a little later on and Marco played in the team with Ian Wright and Mark Bright – and they crucified him. Honestly, I felt sorry for him. He didn’t stay long before he moved to Derby – a bit closer to York.

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RR: As one crowd-favourite was leaving, another was emerging in Kieron Brady. A different type of player to Marco, but one who perhaps didn’t reach his full potential?

GO: Kieron was a different character. He’d come in, and been around the club doing all sorts of things for the youth team. All sorts of stories are told that are true.

There was one game where we won the kick off. Kieron is passed the ball, he flicks it up twice and volleys it over keeper’s head from the halfway line. He did that three times, in three different games!

My first recollection of him, really, was when he went missing for three or four days; missed training to go watch the Pet Shop Boys in Glasgow. That didn’t go down too well.

He was just the classic maverick – the Frank Worthington or the Tony Currie or Stan Bowles. He could do things the other lads couldn’t do. But it was hard to fit him into the team. There are two sides to the game: one side involves defending and that wasn’t his forte, that’s for sure. But he had a really bad condition so we never saw the best of him.

He was always remembered for the West Ham game, but I thought I was better than him in that game!

RR: We definitely had some good players around you – in defence and attack – but, as a fan, I thought that you & Gordon just ran that team from midfield.

GO: Yeah, wish I still had it! Listen, I was lucky; I loved my time – I’ll always say I was lucky. However I’m remembered, I think I’ve played more games than most for Sunderland – I think my name appears in the top twenty-five all-time appearances.

RR: It was a shame we didn’t stay up, because who knows what Denis might have established.

GO: We had a great side: Benno, Dickie, Gordon. A close bunch of lads that did everything together – went out, went away, trained. It was a really happy time in my life, and not just as a footballer. We were really close. Best memories – best days of my life.

We’d had three really good years and when we got relegated it hit Denis really hard. He’d always had an air of confidence about him, but after relegation he tried to turn into something he wasn’t. He was always one of the lads, but he took himself away from us a little bit and it didn’t work. It wasn’t the same the season after relegation.

Join us tomorrow for Part Two, where Gary tells us about life after Denis Smith and what he makes of the current Sunderland side.