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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... former Sunderland striker (and massive lads fan) Chris Brown!

Recovering from a cruciate injury as a teenager, puking on the pitch and scoring the first goal of the Roy Keane era - we talk to Chris Brown about his three seasons on Wearside.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images

RR: Alright Chris lad! Thanks for having a chat with us first and foremost. Nice easy one to begin with, who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club?

CB: Dean Whitehead. The year we got promoted was his first season. When he first came from League Two you could see he had stuff to learn, but he just got stronger and stronger. Of course there was Julio Arca as well.

He covered so much ground. He was everywhere, he was a really hard worker. I’d have to say him in terms of consistency. Deano summed up a Mick McCarthy team.

RR: ... and who was the worst?

CB: Oh dear. Has anyone ever answered that question before?

RR: One or two off the record, aye.

CB: Alright... let me think. They were all Premier League players so this is hard. They were all good pros and honest lads...

RR: What about Anthony Le Tallec?

CB: Yeah. I’m going to say him actually. Just because I thought he didn’t want to be there. I’m not going to criticise his footballing ability, it’s solely based on the fact I felt he’d rather be anywhere but Sunderland.

West Ham United v Sunderland
Chris felt Dean Whitehead was the vital cog in Sunderland’s promotion winning side of 2005.
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

RR: You were born in Donny, but you’re a Sunderland fan from birth due to your Dad (former striker Alan). What are your memories of being a fan? Was there any player you looked up to?

CB: I moved back up North when I was about one. My Dad was injured at the time and I was born when he was doing his rehab. He had a cruciate ligament injury and it was a career-ender at that time.

I was a Fulwell-ender. Phil Gray and Don Goodman was my era. I loved Roker Park, it was always a good atmosphere.

I used to really look up to Michael Bridges to be honest because he was 6-7 years older than me and he’d broken into the team really early and done really well. I could relate to him as a local lad. He’s someone you’d want to emulate coming through the youth ranks.

RR: You were an Academy graduate of course. What is it like being part of the Sunderland Academy? Who was pivotal in your growth?

CB: It was just starting out when I was there. I owe a lot to Ged McNamee actually. I was at the Manchester United school of excellence with him.

I was about 14-15 and being at United, I’d lost a lot of my confidence but when I left them, Ged was straight on the phone to me to get me up at Sunderland. He told to get my head down, work hard and start enjoying my football again. He knew me as a player and tried to get the best out of me, he was tough but he would give me praise when I deserved it. He did an awful lot to me so I have to be honest and say Ged.

RR: I remember you had a pretty horrific cruciate ligament injury in 2002. How hard was it coming back from that sort of injury, physically and mentally?

CB: I did it against the Mags. I was heartbroken. They told me I was finished.

They did some scans and the doctor basically said my career was over, but when someone says that to you, you get stronger mentally. Looking back, it made me work harder and I have to say the physio Dave Binningsley was brilliant for me. It was always in the back of my mind I could be finished so I was a nightmare to work with because I just kept asking questions about the injury all the time, but he kept me positive. He’d always do the rehab with me, he’d never leave me on my own. I was always appreciate that, he deserves so much praise.

RR: You did come back though and went on loan to Doncaster, where you were successful. Your Dad had been very successful at Donny previously. How important was that loan move?

CB: The chairman was obviously a massive long term fan and he LOVED my Dad so I think it’s the only reason he signed me (laughs). I went there and won the league!

The loan move was hugely important. It was a massive eye opener into the world of professional football. I had played plenty of reserve team football, but nothing is like playing for those three points. When you go on loan as a young lad to a club, you’re playing alongside lads playing for their families, their mortgages and it stands you in good stead. I’d recommended it to any team who wants to give their young boys the experience because it’s so important to do that.

I think the manager reaps the benefits as well. The manager trusts you because you’ve got an understanding of what league football is. It’s a brilliant learning curve, you’re going to have sh*t games and learn what it takes - but that’s important. It’s better to make those mistakes now.

I played against Harry Kane at Norwich and I never would have thought he’d end up being the player he is today, and that’s full credit to him. But playing in those games as a young lad, going out of his comfort zone has probably really helped him - you can see he loves to compete. Those loan moves will have taught him so much.

Sunderland v Gillingham
Browny nets an equaliser against Gillingham.
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

RR: The following season you made your debut against Crewe and scored two. What did Mick McCarthy say to you in the run up to the game and what is it like to score for Sunderland? We’ve all dreamed of doing it ourselves!

CB: The amount of times I’ve walked out of his office and felt seven foot tall because he’s straight up, honest - he’ll look you straight in the eye. He speaks to me like he spoke to a senior pro. If he left you out, he’d speak to you honestly, he’d explained himself. He tells you how it is.

I was suspended for the paintball incident actually, I had been training on my own due to that but we had an injury crisis. I got a call and he said he wanted me back in on Monday - so you’re going from thinking your career is in tatters to suddenly you’ve got your chance. I knew I had let the club down with the paint-balling incident so I really wanted to make sure I showed how important playing for Sunderland was to me.

To score twice was amazing. We played Leeds on the Friday night after that and I was involved then and never really looked back after that. But yeah... Mick was brilliant with me.

RR: Of course, we got promoted that year and you played a huge role in that season appearing 37 times. We had a really good blend of youth and experience. Why do you think we did so well that year?

CB: People like Gary Breen were brilliant. As a lad and as a senior pro he was brilliant. I’ve got loads of respect for him. We had likes of Deano and Liam come in from lower leagues and Breeny was instrumental in sewing that team spirit together.

I’ve been in dressing rooms before and sometimes there’s a divide between the young lads and senior pros - but you had these senior pros who integrated the young lads like Liam, Deano, Stephen Elliott and gave them confidence in training.

We had a really good team spirit. It worked really well. I remember when we won the league at West Ham on the Friday night, Alan Pardew said to Mick that we “weren’t the best team in the league” but “probably deserved it” - Mick wasn’t in agreement because we’d beaten some bloody good sides on the way to winning the league - the team spirit and togetherness meant we were the best team.

RR: So we got promoted, we go into the Premier League and it all falls apart. Mick signed a lot of strikers that year that just didn’t cut the mustard. Andy Gray, Le Tallec and so on. Were you disappointed he did that after the season you’d had?

CB: It was a bit of a strange one I guess. I got on at Anfield but went on loan a few days after that. I think it was more of a case that he wanted me to get regular game time though. I respected Mick so I was comfortable going out on loan because I knew anything he did was in my best interests. Like I said before, loan moves can only do you good so I took the attitude that this was a chance for me to gain more experience and come back ready to fight for a place.

RR: He sent you on loan to Hull but you were recalled in November, got an injury that kept you out ‘til March, and by that time Mick had gone. Did you like Mick McCarthy? Where you disappointed when he got the sack?

CB: Yeah, I think everybody was. We knew we hadn’t been good enough, it wasn’t anything to do with Mick. When you are performing like that, you sometimes have a few players in the squad who are happy to see the manager go - but none of us were. We gave our all that season, but we just weren’t good enough in terms of quality. It hurt a lot of the lads knowing that.

RR: I was at the game when we were relegated at Old Trafford. We drew 0-0 but still ended up going down that night. My abiding memory of that game was you puking on the touchline. Where you ill or just f**king knackered?!

CB: It was one of my better games. I know we got relegated, but as a game it was one of the better moments of the season.

I’d been ill for a few weeks, I had been coughing up just all this shit for a few weeks, but it didn’t seem to effect me when I played for some reason. I went to see Bally at the end of the game and just went on a coughing fit and vomited up everything in me! We played well that night, you had Rooney, Neville, Ferdinand in the tunnel, but we matched them that night.

RR: I spoke to Bally a few times regarding that spell he had in caretaker charge that season. He spoke about galvanising the team, finding that team spirit and guiding us to some pretty credible results, including that home win over Fulham - which you scored in. How good was Bally as a manager and do you think he needs more of a role in the first team set-up?

CB: Yeah, I think so. He understands the club and his passion for it is unrivaled. With Bally, he’s fair, if you’re not playing he’ll tell you and that’s all you can want as a footballer. There’s plenty managers in football these days who’ll talk shite to you, but Bally isn’t like that and he’s Sunderland through and through, so yeah definitely.

RR: The season after we started off terribly with Quinny in charge. I think he’d admit himself he wasn’t the best manager! But what he did for the club at that time was obviously massive. How was your relationship with Niall?

CB: It was up and down really. In pre-season, Kyler was coming back and I was pretty far down the pecking order and Quinny had more or less made it clear I wasn’t part of the plans. I carried on training quite well though and got back into the team gradually and played against West Brom, suddenly we started talking about getting a new contract. So yeah, it was a little bit up and down.

RR: When Roy Keane came in, I heard a quote that all the players “grew an inch” when he walked in the room. How impressive was he on the day he walked into the club? What did he say to you personally?

CB: Quinny called a meeting upstairs at the Academy before the West Brom game.

Niall has done this big introduction and presented him as the new manager, then Roy has sort of looked at him with a half serious face and said “I haven’t signed the contract yet” so all the lads are like “f**k me!” - but yeah, it basically lightened the mood. I liked Roy, he was really good.

RR: You started his first game at Derby County and got the equaliser - it was a bloody marvellous day that was! What was it like to play in it?

CB: Aye, all my family came down to the Leeds game a week later thinking I’d be in the team and I wasn’t even on the bench (laughs)! He just wanted to give everyone a chance though.

We went down 1-0 in the first half and to be honest non of us knew if he was going to bollock us or what but he was brilliant in that half time team talk. It was like he just knew we were going to win. He just told us to keep doing what we were doing, we were the better side and we were going to go on and beat them - and we did.

RR: I spoke to Liam Lawrence about this, but after that “video” came out, he said Roy was quite calm and collected about it. Did he speak to you individually or as a group? Did that have anything to do with you leaving the club or was it simply footballing reasons?

CB: I got called in with Ben (Alnwick) actually.

I was just about to set off in my car to get to the Ramside where we stayed before the games and he called me. He told me that a video had been leaked to the papers and said I was meant to be starting and that although he’d fought my corner the Irish backers and Quinny wanted to suspend me for two weeks and that was that.

I stayed away from the club for those two weeks but spoke to him straight away on the day I got back. He was brilliant with me. I’d understandably had a lot of sh*t from the fans and the press, but Roy made sure I was okay mentally. He shook my hand, welcomed me back and just said to me “Browny, are you alright?” - I needed that.

Leaving basically stems back to what I was saying about Quinny during pre-season. Daryl Murphy had done really well that summer and Niall had given him a 5-year-contract. My contract was up in the summer and when Roy came in, he’d shelved all contract talks with players and there was murmurs I wasn’t going to be part of Roy Keane’s plans moving forward - truthfully, I was comfortable with that as I knew I wasn’t 100% part of what he wanted to build going forward. To answer your question, no it didn’t have a lot to do with it (the video) it perhaps just escalated what was about to happen anyway.

Sunderland v Cardiff City
“...But Roy was brilliant with me. I was meant to be starting on the Saturday after the video came out”. Chris was full of praise for Roy Keane.
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

RR: I noticed that you’d managed to be in a squad with two huge Sunderland flops of recent seasons. You played with Danny Graham at Blackburn, did you discuss him time at Sunderland with him?

CB: We never really went into detail, but I think he just mentioned he couldn’t get going. When he came to Blackburn, you could see he was slightly off the pace but Paul Lambert - who’s a great manager - got him up and running and he found his confidence again. He’s scoring loads now.

He’s a very hard worker and it was just one of those things - it didn’t work out.

RR: You also were at Bury with James Vaughan last year - were you surprised we moved for him, or did you think it would have worked out better than it did?

CB: I’m retired now with my knee and I couldn’t get a game at Bury due to my injury so I didn’t played with him. But training with him and watching him, I wasn’t surprised that we went for him at all. He’s a nightmare to play against, he’s aggressive. I was more surprised it didn’t work out but if you don’t hit the ground running sometimes it just becomes tough.

RR: Finally...do you think we’re going to stay up?

CB: The Middlesbrough game could be a turning point. I think they’ll get a lot from it. But we’ve said this a few times this season.

I heard the crowd really got behind them today and that is a huge, huge thing because by all accounts it hasn’t been the best atmosphere over there this year - but I was told the fans were absolutely brilliant. All you need is two wins and you’re out of it and the confidence is back. You have to be optimistic.

Now retired due to a long standing knee injury, Chris has just entered the world of podcasting and last week released episode one of @UndrTheCosh.

Undr The Cosh is available on iTunes and charts the life and times of various former - and current - footballers, with Jon Parkin and Chris discussing their careers in Episode One (which is well worth a listen).