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

Gary continues his chat with Roker Report as he tells us about the post-Smith days: Butcher, Buxton & Bristol City. And what does he make of the current side?

Photo by Barrington Coombs/EMPICS via Getty Images

RR: Things changed dramatically for Denis after we got relegated, but Malcolm Crosby emerged to take us to Wembley...

GO: I’ve got close to Malcolm over the years, but the hardest thing for us all at the time was Denis and Viv having a fallout. It was the saddest thing. Unfortunately that’s what football sometimes does to you. They were best mates and Crosser was good friends with them both – he got caught in the middle.

RR: The cup run was an amazing achievement, especially for a newly relegated side who had changed their manager...

GO: Yeah. The cup run was driven by the team spirit. Byrney, Anton, Gordon, Bally. Don was part of it, even though he was cup-tied. The camaraderie was important – all the chattering and sing-song on the bus or the train.

I played in the third round against Port Vale at home, got injured and then only played in the final. But I was always part of that team. It was good fun, really.

I think we started to realise what might happen during the West Ham replay. Tony Norman was superb at Upton Park. Then Byrney got us the draw at Chelsea and Gordon won us the replay. We went into the semi-final expecting to beat Norwich. At Wembley, Liverpool were just better than us on the day.

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RR: We had more managerial changes the following year when Terry Butcher replaced Malcolm...

GO: It wasn’t the most enjoyable period, to be honest. You have managers you get on with and have a good relationship with – Denis took me under his wing a little bit and helped me off the pitch as well, cos I had some tough times when I was young. But with Terry Butcher, it was just a bad time all round.

He wrote a book and slagged me off in it, saying it was my fault because we had this terrific team spirit. It had been around for a while and it held us all together. We’d had a couple of promotions and a cup final, but he tried to break it and he singled me out. I don’t know why.

When he came in, you could see that he must have been a top, top player in his time. I could see how good he was, though he struggled with his knees and he didn’t train a lot. But when he spoke, he knew the game inside out – no doubt about that. He didn’t seem to get that the way he was trying to get his message across just didn’t work. He had good values and he’s had some disaster in his life with his son and Terry was a British bulldog, proud man, but…

There was a game under Butcher against Southend and I was injured, thankfully, and they boo’d them off at half time. In them days everyone would have a cup of tea, calm down and you’d come back out. Well, this game they booed them back out as well! Then you knew it was bad! Booed them off and booed them back on!

I remember Butcher doing the cheer-leading after that or maybe another game, which I think we lost. I’m just thinking “I don’t think you’ve got this one, Terry”.

RR: You outlasted him though, and he was replaced by Mick Buxton. But Mick sold you!

GO: He sold me, yeah. I wasn’t having a good time on the pitch and I was getting a bit of stick. It was my tenth season and I wasn’t getting a testimonial or anything like other lads and it just wasn’t a good time.

But it happened quickly: Mick pulled me to one side and said speak to Joe – Joe Jordan.

We’d just played them, Bristol City, on the Saturday, and the next Saturday I was playing for them. I was pleased that I’d done it quick, and I can’t say I regret it, but I probably should have taken a little bit more time. Maybes it was far enough away from Sunderland; I had to go and make a clean break. It was probably the best thing –y’know, four or five hours away. I had to go overnight and just stay there. It was heavy – my whole life – and it didn’t hit me ‘til a couple of weeks later.

The only regret I have in football is that I never got the chance to come back and play against Sunderland. Never had that opportunity and the probably the biggest thing I’ve missed out on.

Gary was sold to Bristol City by Mick Buxton
Image: Bristol Post

RR: It’s a shame you weren’t around when Reidy came in. At 27, 28, you could have been a key player for him.

GO: I’d have loved to have been part of that. If I hadn’t moved I think I could have had another go with him. I’d met him, I’d been in his company and I think, with the group of players he got going, I could have fitted into that and he could have got a bit more out of me,

But I’d been through Terry and Mick and maybe my time was up. Dickie, Andy Melville, Phil Gray, they were all part of it under Reid, but it wasn’t to be. The biggest regret still is I didn’t go back and play against them.

RR: Do you keep in touch with any of the lads?

GO: We had some good times and it went a little bit stale for me at the end, which was a shame, but I had some good years, really. We were close, Gordon & I, but there’s a group of us, you know, Benno, Don, Dickie, Anton [Rogan], Gordon, where we don’t have to see each other for months but we would walk in and bump into each other and we’d sit down like we’ve never not seen each other! Dickie Ord is a friend for life. We had some good times. I’ve always said, it was the happiest time of my life.

RR: As you look back over your time with the club, is there any game that stands out for you?

GO: That play-off game, obviously. And my debut - that stays with you.

Some of those nights at Roker Park, when you run out and that crowd gets going; there was nothing better. They were on your side and going away, pulling 7,000, 8,000 fans. It was exciting. I don’t think people realise what great supporters you are and what a massive club it is.

Hopefully, if I’m remembered by anyone, it’s for working hard for the club.

Roker Park

RR: I know you’re really busy with your own team, but do you ever get to see Sunderland, just as a fan?

GO: I still get up, yeah. Monty gets me invited up two or three times. My lads, who were both born in Bristol, support Sunderland – we went to the Swansea game and the league cup final, so I still get when I can.

But I was at the Swansea game and I just thought there was no passion. I walked away from there quite sad, really. I had a chat with a few lads and they said, “Well, that’s what’s served up every week”. And that’s sad, cos it’s just football up there. It’s about going to the game at the weekend and getting excited, but they were just saying “this is us now”. But it shouldn’t be. There should always be that element if you’re playing for Sunderland; there should always be that passion.

It’s the culture and they should be breeding it at Sunderland; from when they come in at six or seven. This is Sunderland AFC and this is what you need to play for this football club. Money shouldn’t make any difference. This is Sunderland! The money’s incredible, but come on….

It comes back to recruitment and the characters they’re bringing in to the club. I’d say they need to look locally and from the lower leagues to get the right characters. I’d rather set aside a figure, say £10m, and get the best 18, 19 year olds and grow them into your culture, rather than bringing the names in from elsewhere who don’t understand the club.

RR: You mentioned your lads are Sunderland fans – you’re making the poor kids suffer too?!

GO: They follow it, yeah.

I’ve never been one for causing a fuss, so they didn’t realise ‘til they got older, you know, with the internet, and they’d say “Dad, this man on here playing for Sunderland looks like you”. “Oh yeah, son, that’s me – I forgot to tell you”.

But they were brought up away from Sunderland and born towards the end of my career, my two boys. They were young and you don’t talk to your kids – you don’t sit them on your knee and say “Listen, son, your Dad used to play for Sunderland” – I just never thought anything of it. We used to go to a few games and people’d say hello and the boys’d ask “Dad, how does that man know you?!”

They’re involved in football themselves. The youngest has been offered a scholarship with Bristol City and eldest is involved with the FA at Gloucester.

RR: So, as a family, how do you all see the current situation? Relegation must be inevitable now?

GO: I hope it won’t come to that, but you can’t tell me with three of four years parachute payments they couldn’t put a squad together to get out of that league at the first attempt, if they do go down. If they couldn’t do that, it’d be the end of the world.

It sounds stupid, but one good week – three games in a week – and you can still pull clear. There’s still time to get momentum and if you have your best spell at the end of the season you get clear and no-one can catch you. There’s still enough games to make up the five or six points to safety.

RR: What do you make of Chris Coleman? Can he be the one to turn the club around and how could he do that, given the state of ownership?

GO: He’s a good guy, Chris, and he did well with Wales. I think he was a good appointment. He’ll understand the club and be able to relate to the supporters and I think that’ll help him, long-term.

It might be through the academy [how things turn]. We’ve got young lads coming through and that’s something that’s maybe been missed in the past. There was always a local lad in the team and there was always one coming through. I know it’s harder now, with the amount of players brought in from overseas but with the catchment area and the tradition of the club – it’s still a great football area in the North-East – they might be better spending a bit more time getting the young lads through.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images

RR: Maybe, if Chris doesn’t fancy it, we could be making an approach to Torquay United...

GO: Listen, even working with the kids or the U23 I think I’d love that, if it ever popped up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not touting for a job; I’m just saying I’d love that opportunity to go back and give something back.

I think it’s good if you can have people about who know the club. It’s got to be about identity as well and you need people who can understand and express what it feels like to play for the club and wear the shirt. You need to express the passion of the supporters and often, with all the stuff that’s going on in coaching, that’s missed.

It’s about representation as well. Who you’re actually going to play for and what it means to play for them. People right through the club have to get it. How they can tell or get the message across if they’ve never played for the club?

I always think you just get a little bit more if you can instill that desire to play for the club. It’s not just about being able to control a football or catch it on the back of your neck, as they seem to do now. It’s like, come on, this is what it means to play for Sunderland and play in front of this crowd. This is what the crowd are gonna demand from you – you know what it’s like! You try hard, you try your best, the crowd’ll get excited when they see effort and commitment.