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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... Former Sunderland defender Nedum Onuoha! Is he coming back?

The right back who turned in Lionel Messi at Stamford Bridge on Super Sunday talks Steve Bruce, losing the derby and his rumoured return to the SoL!

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

RR: Hi Nedum, thanks for chatting to Roker Report about your time at the club! Nice easy one to begin with. Who’s the best player you played alongside during your time at the club?

NO: There was a few really. Jordan Henderson is the first name I think of, but Danny Welbeck did really, really well for the club when he came. It was also the season Bardo (Phil Bardsley) won player of the year, so I could give you a number of answers, but I think I’ll go for Jordan and Danny.

RR: How did the move come about? You were highly rated at your hometown club, was it a hard move? What did you hope the move to Sunderland would mean for you in the future?

NO: I started to realise how lucky I was to play for my hometown club when the manager there didn’t fancy me as much as the manager before, and at that point you realise you have to go and play games for the good of your career. Playing for a club as big as Sunderland, and also playing weekly in the Premiership was a huge pull.

I had other offers at the time, but I just couldn’t turn down somewhere like Sunderland which was a solid Premier League team with a fantastic fanbase.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League
Nedum chose Jordan Henderson as one of the best players he played alongside during his season at SAFC.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

RR: We started the season incredibly well and were beating the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal. It felt like the Stadium of Light was a real fortress back then. How good was it to play at the SOL during that period?

NO: I think apart from one or two games around the beginning of the season, you’re right, it was like a fortress. We played some nice football and, apart from the period where we lost to Newcastle, the fans really got behind us at the Stadium of Light; they really backed us.

We always tried to put teams on the back foot, remain competitive and the fans responded to that. We had a good side. We had Jordan and Catts pushing in the middle, flair out wide with the likes of Bolo Zenden and Steed Malbranque. Bardo was solid at the back, and we some great strikers at the club then too.

RR: An unfortunate low point in your time here was the 5-1 defeat at St. James Park. Can you describe to me what went wrong that day, and how the dressing room was afterwards?

NO: We were devastated. The one thing you look at when you come to Sunderland is the derby. People very quickly tell you what that game means to the area, the fanbase, and the people.

I remember Jordan (Henderson) being really nervous before the game. He was really anxious about that game. He was a fan, the local lad and he wanted to do so well in it. He was really anxious to play well because it meant so much to him. So, when you have such high hopes as fans and as a team and that happens - it’s devastating. Obviously, the manager lost his mind after the game, but, to me, that was the game the kick started some tremendous form!

We knew we’d let ourselves down, the fans down and the club down. We had a few days to take it on the chin, then it was about getting ourselves ready to get the season back on track and I think we did that - we achieved our aim, which was finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League. We picked up some excellent wins just after that as well, like Spurs and at Chelsea, obviously.

RR: What was said in the aftermath of that match? Because we went on a really good run afterwards. Was there any particular player who rallied the team?

NO: No one in particular, no, it was more teamwork. Of course you have players in the team who you’d class as leaders, but different things people say resonate with different people, so it’s more about the team. It’s professionalism and about restoring the teams pride.

Nobody likes getting beat and nobody likes getting beat like that away from home, but losing a game like that you know is the game up there - it really hurt. It still hurts now thinking back to it.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League
One of the most memorable Sunderland goals of all time.
Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

RR: On another note - that Chelsea game... what was going through your head when you picked up the ball on the halfway line?

NO: It was a weird one because I was playing right back, and when Hendo puts the cross in I’m actually in the centre of the pitch for some reason - I have no idea why I was there!

Then the ball came to me and... I dunno really, one thing led to another and I’m going through the defence and we’re 1-0 up at Stamford Bridge just before half time.

RR: Your celebration looked like you couldn’t believe what you’d just done!

NO: I was just knackered to be honest! I wish I’d celebrated it a bit more, but I was really tired from the run - I was literally shattered (laughs). That’s why there was no big celebration, but I’ve scored far worse goals than that over the years!

RR: Were you surprised when Darren Bent left during that time? Or was there a feeling inside the club that he was wanting to move? How much did his departure effect team morale?

NO: No, not really, it didn’t effect team morale at all.

We were just very surprised. I thought I was quite close to him and it seemed to come out of nowhere. I don’t know if he told anyone else in the squad, but we were all just surprised. The move came about fairly late in the window as well, so it left the club in a difficult position.

I don’t think it really effected the way we played or the morale, but when you lose your top scorer and you haven’t really got the time to replace him because he’s left near the end of the window - it’s just difficult.

RR: Did you notice any difference in Steve Bruce when he lost Bent?

NO: Yeah, he was quite frustrated for a while after that. I think very few people knew why he actually left, but I think Steve was one of them because he was very frustrated for a while. He definitely changed in demeanour after Darren left.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

RR: Was was Steve Bruce like to play for on the whole? What was your relationship like with him?

NO: He was good. He was very direct. Not everybody’s cup of tea admittedly, but he rewarded hard work. If you were giving 100%, he’d back you. He has his beliefs in how a team should play and what he likes from his players and he sticks by those beliefs.

If you’re working hard, you’ll be rewarded, if you’re playing well, you’ll be rewarded but if you weren’t - then you were straight out. That’s something I’ve been used to and like in my career because it translates to the training and keeps it competitive - everyone giving 100% in training.

RR: I remember us going on a really bad losing streak after the January transfer window, however we broke a 13-game winless run with a 4-2 win over Wigan. We went 0-1 down and lost both of our strikers, but the fans really got behind the team and willed them on to a win. How important do you think SAFC fans are to how the team performs?

NO: I think it can be massive. I can relate it to how the team did this year.

When things were going particularly bad for them - speaking to certain people at the club like staff etc - the general belief was that they really struggled playing under the pressure from the fans. The fans were there to get behind them and support, but you can’t support some of the stuff that came last year given the recent history of the club.

When the place is buoyant it’s like having extra players on the field. I’ve felt it and loved it, but when it’s hostile it does make it easier for the opposition and unfortunately not everyone who has worn the shirt has been able to handle the pressure of playing in front of those fans in that area.

RR: Jordan Henderson scored two that day - as someone who trained with him everyday, did you always know he was going to be an England captain in the future?

NO: Genuinely I wasn’t sure. He’d shown me he was a good player, but certain occasions showed he still had quite a young mentality both in life and in the game.

He is a very hard worker, though, and was always keen to learn, and it’s no surprise that now he’s learned from some of the best his game has gone up another level.

He was a player who, at the time, really felt the burden of playing for his hometown club. He’d be incredibly nervous in and around derby games and would be worried about things going wrong; whereas, now I think he prepares himself and his game to make sure things go right for him and he will control the controllables.

When he went to Liverpool it really could have gone either way - and everyone remembers the time when it wasn’t going well - but it was his character, desire and will to get better that made him into what he is today. I personally still think he’s not the finished article, which isn’t too bad considering he’s captaining both Liverpool and England!

I’d never write him off.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Nedum played against us last year, but is not expecting a return to the club, despite rumours.
Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images

RR: Was there any conversation about you staying at the club and would you have liked to?

NO: To be honest, I wanted the chance to go back to City. Nobody ever spoke to me directly about staying, although I heard there may have been talk of that.

I remember at the end of the season going back and speaking to (Roberto) Mancini and saying I’d like to come back and work to see if I could get back into his plans. I didn’t see that I had no future there, otherwise I would've probably tried to see if Sunderland wanted me to stay.

I loved my time there, but it always felt like a loan. I felt what it was like to be a Sunderland player and I fully embraced it and helped the club achieve the goal it set out at the beginning of the season, which was a top 10 finish, but I still thought I had a future elsewhere. It turned out I didn’t, and before I knew it I was training with the under-18s at City and told to leave. The downside of that was I think Sunderland had already moved on.

My time at Sunderland certainly wasn’t sour, though. I had some of the most memorable moment of my career there. I lived in Seaham by the beach and played with some exceptional talents in front of 40k+ fans every other week.

I don’t regret not trying to force my hand and stay because I really did believe I had a future at City - a club I was at from the age of 10. But if I knew I didn’t have one, I’d have loved to have stayed.

RR: There’s also been rumours that you could return to the club this summer. Simple question - would you consider a return if it was on the table?

NO: I’m not too sure to be totally honest. There’s been rumours, but nobody who represents me has been approached, or even mentioned it.

I think the club needs to get back to the top division, and as much as I’d like to help them get there, time isn’t on my side like it once was so I’ll be looking to try and experience something a little different before I decide to call time on things. Who knows in football though? Stranger things have happened - but I’d say it’s unlikely.