RR: Hi Chris! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to chat your time at the club. Nice easy one to begin with. You played in the best side we’ve had in recent memory, but who was the best player you played alongside and why?
CM: Difficult question that one. It’s a team game and we did well because everyone played their part in that team. Even the subs, people came in and filled in. They all contributed.
Kev scored his goals, Butler and Andy Meville had that relationship at the back. If I didn’t have that relationship with Buzzer (Nicky Summerbee) I don’t think the team would have functioned as well - the same all over the pitch, Mickey and Johnno (Allan Johnston), Quinny and Kev, Bally and Nash (Lee Clark). You need those little relationships.
If I had to single anyone out, which I don’t want to, I’d have to say Buzzer.
RR: Going back to when you joined the club now, you were one of the first in the door following our relegation. You’d spent a year at Marseille then moved to us. How did the move come about and how did Reidy convince you that Sunderland was the right place?
CM: I didn’t want to leave Marseille to be brutally honest. It’s a massive club, huge fan base and I loved my life there - I didn’t want to come back to England. As it was Reidy and my agent made it clear they wanted the move to happen, and back then £500k was a lot for French football. The President told me he wanted the money and said he wanted me to go. I had a few arguments with him about it and said I’d stay and play in the reserves and fight for my place; in turn he was just as adamant I was going. In the end, if a club don’t want you - you can’t stay.
I decided then to come back to England and when you’re looking at clubs to come back they had a good squad, going into the new stadium, a huge club and big crowds. I’d played at Roker Park and I knew how good the crowd was, and I wanted that.
RR: Going back to your Stadium of Light debut, you played in the opening league win against Manchester City - I know, you’re a massive red too! - what was the day like? Opening day at the SOL, the dawn of a new era.
CM: As a professional, it’s all about it being your first home game. I couldn’t give a toss that it was City or whoever, it was just about putting our stamp down and winning the game. A lot of clubs go to new stadiums and it’s difficult for the home side because away teams come into this lovely new stadium, brilliant pitch and they love it. People forget, but we had to get over that little hurdle, to turn the SOL into the intimidating atmosphere that Roker Park had - it wasn’t easy turning that place into the fortress it became.
I remember we played Norwich at home and battered them, but got beat 1-0 and Reidy was getting sh*t. That first quarter of the season, we had some tough times I tell you.
RR: The start of that season though didn’t go to plan and it all culminated in that 4-0 defeat at Reading. What was said in the dressing room that day that turned our season around?
CM: Nothing changed in terms of the changing room. I don’t remember any meetings, I think Reidy just changed a few faces and brought in younger lads and it just improved.
Lee Clark started coming into his own and he had a major influence, Kev Phillips started banging in the goals. It just clicked. Buzzer scored down at Portsmouth - and I don’t want to big him up or nowt - but it was a masterstroke. It meant Johno moved to the left and Buzzer on the right and he was just supplying that forward line constantly.
RR: The form improved dramatically but for you individually, you lost your place to Darren Holloway due to injury. Did Reidy give you reasons why and how hard was that period for you personally?
CM: I got injured in a home game against Swindon and Darren Bullock done me. I was out for three months; he really done me, I was surprised he didn’t break my ankle. By the time I got back to fitness, we were on that mad run where we just won all of the time and I knew Reidy couldn’t change that, obviously.
RR: As it was, despite being out of the team, you come on at half time in the play-off final. I think it was probably the most exhausting game any fan has been involved in - but what are your memories of the day as a player?
CM: I had worked really hard on my fitness that week and I really put the work in. I had played in the first leg against Sheffield United and had done my shoulder and had to come off. I was gutted, but I thought I’ll work my arse off to at least get on the bench.
When it came to the game, we just couldn’t get going. Darren wasn’t having the best game and I thought I might get on. I was determined to get on play well and enjoy the game. I really wanted to enjoy every minute. I wanted to have an impact on the game. Then you’re leading and we get pulled back, then you’re leading again. But I thought I had played well.
We should have won the game to be honest. We should have saw it out. But in hindsight, were we strong enough at that time to go up? I think it would have been a tougher season in the Premier League then when we did eventually go up.
RR: Talk me through what goes through your head as you’re stepping up to take that penalty?
CM: My penalty was crap.
Like I said, I just wanted to enjoy the day. When Reidy asked who wanted to take a penalty my hand went straight up. I was determined to enjoy the day, the moment. I’ve always been crap at penalties though, ever since I was a kid. It was the frame of mind I was in that day, I just thought “if I don’t take one, I’ll always remember that I didn’t” - I had to have the balls to take it.
The horrible thing about the penalties is when it goes to six or seven penalties - you don’t expect it to go that far, so the lads taking them are maybe not mentally prepared to take one because you don’t expect it. People talk about Mickey Gray, but my penalty was the worst one.
RR: Obviously, the season after we trounced the entire division, you got back into the side and turned into a total cult hero! How would you sum up that 105 point season, and why were we so successful?
CM: Well he brought in Butts (Paul Butler) who was an experienced Championship defender and he went alongside Andy Meville which was all about having a little more experience at the back. I came back in because Darren Holloway was injured, alongside bringing in Tommy Sorensen. It was a little more experience at the back.
We had good players as well, to be fair, and when you’re winning games it snowballs. Your confidence is there and when we played at home it was packed every single week - you couldn’t get a ticket! There wasn’t a spare seat in the house and when that crowd is behind you and you’re playing well anyway... it’s not a magical formula, we were just a good side, we had good little partnerships all over the pitch with a brilliant crowd behind us.
Peter Reid did well in getting an experienced spine. We mentioned the centre halves, but you had Bally and Nash in the centre - Bally would win headers, and Nash was the ball player.
RR: Obviously, we demolished Division One and went up. Then we get Chelsea on the opening day and got smashed 4-0 - it brought us back to earth a little. Was having a result like that so early on a good thing in hindsight?
CM: No! I certainly didn’t think that at the time. Match of the Day, beautiful weather - you don’t want to get beat 4-0. It should have been ten! Chris Sutton went through two or three times, he didn’t score but he should have had a hat-trick. We got taught a real lesson.
We had Watford at home on the Tuesday, though, and they had came up with us and we were confident of getting a win - which we did. Then you’ve got those first three points and you start thinking you can do this and that you do belong here. Next game we play Arsenal who were a terrific side and got a draw with a clean sheet - that boosts your confidence because if you can get a clean sheet against a team like Arsenal it becomes a boost. Results like that make you start believing you’re a good Premier League side.
We’d had a tough pre-season, though, you know. We lost Nash because of the t-shirt incident, Andy Meville went to Fulham too. So Reidy brought in two fabulous players in Stevey Bould and Stefan Schwarz - two brilliant players, massively experienced and the kind of players that would direct you through a game, players you would listen to and once we got those early results we felt we could compete.
RR: Your first derby against those lot was memorable. What are your memories of that match? It must have been mad to play in!
CM: They were redeveloping the ground so we only had about 900 fans or something. I remember he dropped Shearer and they brought the kid Paul Robinson in and they were actually the better side in the first half - they started really fast.
Second half we got two goals in relatively quick succession. There’s a bit of a slope at St. James Park and we were going up it in the second half. it was difficult conditions, but we had players all over the pitch the could battle - that wasn’t a problem to us.
Quinny’s goal was fabulous when you look back at the way he’s more or less going backwards and has to use the pace of the ball in from Buzzer. Kev Phillips put his chance away brilliantly as well. I do remember Bally hitting the bar at the end though - I was sure it was in. But you know, we deserved it.
You beat your local rivals, the fans have the bragging rights and you can’t wait for the next game. Results like that and the character shown meant we quickly developed into a really good Premier League side.
RR: That tackle you put in on Alan Shearer was beautiful, I remember the commentator saying there was “some afters” but we were all too busy celebrating the goal. What happened there?
CM: I don’t remember anything unusual. Thing is with Shearer, you could give him it but he’d take it as well. He got me back not much later, he took me out with a beauty and then he shoved my head into the turf.
I’ve got no problems with Alan Shearer, that’s what it was all about. That was the game. It’s crap nowadays, it’s like netball, you can’t put a tackle in. It drives me mad how much it’s changed - any good tackle is a yellow nowadays. It drives me mad.
RR: From memory, you played against some great wingers that year, but who was your toughest opponent?
CM: I remember David Ginola when he was at Spurs. We were on a fabulous run at the time. We were overpowering teams at the Stadium of Light and we couldn’t wait for the next game. I watched him a few weeks previous and I saw what he’d done to Gary Neville so I knew I’d be in for a game - it’s not like I’d get much help from Buzzer! (laughs)
I was quite nervous in the build up to the game, but at the same time I was 27-28 and in the prime of my career - I had some pace. It was 442 in those days and you had little battles all over the pitch and mine was Ginola. If I manage the winger, it gives Buzzer the chance to put the balls in. If I fail in my role, Buzzer doesn’t get the ball and Quinny and Kev don’t get the service. Simple.
I’d never played against him before, but he used to look rapid on TV, but he actually couldn’t beat me for pace. He tried to do me the first time and I matched him and I thought “I can do this”.
Niall Quinn made Sol Campbell look cumbersome that day - that was his battle. What a run of form we were on then. Such a strong, strong run.
RR: In those days we didn’t just have a talented set of players, but a bunch of lads who worked their socks off for each other. How well did you all get on?
CM: Yeah, we had a fabulous team spirit. To create that team spirit we had a really lively social life! What we did then though, you couldn’t do it now.
It would be impossible to do these days. There was some great lads and some of the stuff we got up to - we couldn’t do now. We had a good drinking squad and yeah, honestly, that sort of bonding helped us.
RR: Talking about characters, we showed loads of it again when we went back to St. James and won a year later. We went down 1-0 in the 4th minute, but came back to claim a memorable victory. I remember you, Mickey and Hutchison absolutely buzzing going to the away fans at the end. How messy did that night end up?
CM: (laughs) How messy? Well... we ended up back in Sunderland.
The first time we did it was midweek, so we had a few swift ones in O’Neill’s in Durham the first time, but this one we went out to Sunderland. We celebrated that night, I tell you. Some of the things we got up to... deary me. I think we ended up in Idols or Annabelle's that night.
We had a good drinking squad, a good team spirit - they were all messy nights, trust me!
RR: Not long after that, we get hammered 4-1 at Arsenal and you, Nicky and Mickey Gray go for a night out, the paparazzi step out as you leave a club with Melanie Sykes. The manager drops you and Nicky for the game against Leeds. What happened?
CM: To be perfectly honest, that night just brought stuff to a head. We got done over at Highbury and we hadn’t played well. We had the Leeds game the following Sunday so some of the Lads decided to stay over. Anyhow, me and Buzzer got subbed in that game.
I had a blazing row, a massive, massive row with Reidy because he thought I’d been playing poorly for weeks and I simply didn’t agree with him. It was a huge argument and I just didn’t want to go out after that, I couldn’t be arsed. My Dad was up with a few of the Manchester lads but I just wasn’t in the mood. The lads were all saying “come out and have a drink, forget about it” and convinced me to go out eventually.
Obviously what unfolded that night got in the papers, but, to be honest, I think it was just the excuse Reidy needed to drop me. He dropped us both for the Leeds game and we got beat 2-1 and we had the Newcastle game after the international game. During international break Reidy used to take us to Manchester, have a few beers and that. We had a good weekend and I got put back in the side the next week.
Against Newcastle though we got 2-0 down in the first twenty minutes and I’m thinking “here we go, this compounds the last few weeks,” but we came back brilliantly. They had a team full of experienced internationals and we pulled it back. When we equalised I wished we’d had another five minutes because we would have gotten that third, we were battering them. Just another five more minutes and we would have got that third.
RR: At one point we were second off top both in 99/00 and 00/01. What caused that dip in form that meant we just missed out European football, and how disappointing was it to miss out so narrowly after such good seasons?
CM: The first year we had a really poor period where we didn’t win for thirteen games or something, and if you think how narrowly we missed out on Europe, one point here or there, just one win and we would have been in Europe. That’s the margin. If one of those thirteen games turned into a win - you’re in Europe.
Sometimes when I think back on my career now at 45, if there’s any regrets in my football career it’s that - I would have loved a European tour with Sunderland. It was a great period that people talk about well, but we should have got into Europe and we were good enough to get into Europe.
RR: When you left the club, it was a complete surprise. Did you know it was coming? There was murmurs that you had an argument with Peter Reid that seemed to stem from that Melanie Sykes incident.
CM: No one said anything. Reidy didn’t close me in, no rumours - nothing. I didn’t see it coming. Listen... Peter Reid had to make his decision and he did it. People say when you fall foul of Reidy that’s it and maybe it is, but he’s entitled to that if it’s his management style as the manager of Sunderland AFC. He made that decision, but in the end it didn’t pay off.
It was that period of time when the foreign players were becoming more prominent. The diets, nutrition and all that. Even these days you pay far less for a player outside of England. I think Sunderland wanted to be part of that. Clubs will look at the team as a whole and try and work out how to move forward. We got beat at Everton 5-0 and Leicester 5-2 and maybe Reidy thought “how long can these British players keep this up?” and decided to change it up a bit. It came to back to bite him though eventually.
When you look at who went - Alex Rae, Buzzer, me - I think that’s the route they wanted to go. They did it with a few players even after I left. Lilian Laslandes, Tore Andre Flo.
I didn’t want to leave Sunderland, but I asked if it was what the club wanted, what Reidy wanted and my agent said “yeah” and like I said before, you don’t stay at a club if they don’t want you. I didn’t want to go, but I had to go. I had a look at Ipswich as a city, spoke to the club and made the decision to join them because Sunderland didn’t want me.
Ipswich were third at the time, direct competition for Sunderland and I thought I could go to Ipswich and try and prove that Peter Reid made the wrong the decision by letting me go by getting into Europe - and we did, so there you go.
RR: All in all, how enjoyable was your time at Sunderland and if, given the chance, would you do anything differently?
CM: It was the best time. Very simple.
On and off the pitch it was just the best. I’m a Manchester lad and my friends used to come up to the Stadium, all (Manchester) United fans and they loved coming to the Stadium of Light. The players lounge was full of folk from Manchester, the whole place was bouncing - you couldn’t get a ticket. There was even some ticket touts coming from Manchester trying to get in on the act.
It was some time, it was incredible. I just wish we’d brought that European football.