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INTERVIEW: Roker Report Meets... Former Sunderland, Barcelona & Chelsea midfielder Bolo Zenden!

THAT volley against Spurs, THAT dance at Stamford Bridge and ending his playing career as captain with a goal and a man of the match performance - maverick midfielder Bolo Zenden joins Roker Report to talk about his time at Sunderland.

West Ham United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

RR: Hi Bolo! Thanks for sitting down to chat with Roker Report. How have you been? What are you up to these days for those who don’t know?

BZ: I’ve been good. What I do at the moment is I’m a specialist trainer at PSV. Which means I’m working as assistant manager and I’m tasked with training the number 9’s and 10’s and the wingers specifically - I do that with the first team.

On top of that I am working as a pundit on TV in the Netherlands and abroad, we also have a family business in my home town of Maastricht which is a health club and a hotel, with studio rental and that’s another thing I’m involved with.

I started my coaching career as assistant to Rafa Benitez at Chelsea (as some people know) in 2011. We finished third in the league, got to the FA Cup Semi but we won the Europa League, however I went back to Holland after that and did a year coaching the youth team at PSV as assistant manager and then moved onto first team duties a year after and I’ve been there for four years now.

RR: Enjoying it?

BZ: Yes, it’s good. I’m enjoying it as it’s part time at PSV and it’s good that I have time for TV work and the family business, but also for my family as I have two little kids - one is four and one is six and it’s good to spend some time with them.

PSV Training and Press Conference - UEFA Champions League
Bolo now coaches in his homeland with Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

RR: Let me take you back to October 2009 - Steve Bruce and Sunderland come calling to offer you a contract following your summer departure from Marseille. What attracted you to the club, and how did the move come about?

BZ: I had made my mind up; I wanted to come back to the Premier League after I left Marseille. Sunderland gave me that opportunity. It’s a short explanation but that’s the truth of it.

A few other teams were interested but once I was invited to come over to sunny Sunderland and saw the training ground and the stadium - it was a pretty easy choice. I wanted to be big back in the Premier League really and it was ideal for me.

RR: You made your debut on a day when the atmosphere in the Stadium of Light was electric, a tremendous 1-0 home win over your old club Liverpool. You had a great relationship with us fans, but was that a pretty good first impression?

BZ: Of course. I remember the fans and it was a really special day too. We won 1-0 and they still talk about it due to the beach ball goal - so that made my debut even more memorable.

I have to admit that I’ve had a good relationship with the fans wherever I’ve been, luckily, but that was a really good way to enter the club though. A good win over Liverpool in front of a passionate crowd.

I remember I had two songs from the fans. “Bolo, give us a dance” and the 2Unlimited one “Bolo, Bolo” - I had a great relationship with the Sunderland fans, they were great to me.

RR: We had started that season incredibly well and it looked like we might be on course for a European place, but then we had a collapse mid-season which meant we ended up sat in mid table - it happened in both seasons. Why do you think we weren’t able to push on?

BZ: Honestly, I think it had two factors.

One is having the depth of quality within the squad. For example when it comes to December and you’re playing almost three games a week, that’s when you notice the difference. The top six find it easy to rotate and keep players fresh due to the depth in the squad - you can have a good eleven but they can’t play every single week.

The other reason is also quality, but from a perspective of mentality. I believe that everywhere I’ve played I’ve always tried to get better individually and as a team, to finish higher in the league, to push for those extra few spots season on season and at Sunderland I couldn’t really cope with the mentality of everything being fine if we weren’t near the relegation zone - it really annoyed me and was one of the reasons I left.

It was fine to lose a game until we had to look over our shoulders, do you know what I mean? I have a mentality to keep pushing to get better. For example, yes we finished tenth but it could have been better.

Leading up to the West Ham game, we didn’t really focus on how to get that tenth place. I think that sort of mentality was a problem in why we didn’t push on and also played a role in why I didn’t sign my extension.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
One of the classiest players to pull on a red and white shirt, Bolo was often inexplicably underused by Steve Bruce.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

RR: In the past we’ve spoken to other players that you played with under Bruce, and some of them weren’t particularly kind in what they had to say about him. He certainly split opinion - what did you make of him? Was he popular in the dressing room?

BZ: When I said before about the mentality, if you wanted to win a game it was all about working your arse off - but it wasn’t always about winning the games tactically, it was more about how much running you did and so on. He had some favourites, and some that weren’t favourites and sometimes that showed and it didn’t always work in my opinion.

For example players like myself and Steed were seen more as tactically good footballers and maybe weren’t seen as much as “workers” - but Steed worked his socks off, and I feel I did too, but in a different way.

You look at Steed for example, he was a fantastic player and he moved to Lyon a year later and played in the Champions League for three or four years, but couldn’t get a game at Sunderland for some months. Steve Bruce was very much about putting in a shift and the focus was centred around that.

Personally, I remember a few games where I’d play really well, we’d get a win and I’d put in a shift but I was dropped a week later. He’d come to me and say “sorry son, you’re not playing this week”. I didn’t have a bad relationship with him but in the end, I just wanted to play more games and enjoy myself a little more as a footballer.

RR: You probably knew this question was coming up... talk us through that dance at Stamford Bridge. What did you make of the commotion it created in the aftermath of the game?

BZ: Let’s put it this way, if you got away to Chelsea and you win 3-0 - it’s worth a dance, whether it’s a good one or a bad one!

We all knew Asamoah had this crazy dance that couldn’t be copied or followed by anyone, so when I saw him dance I thought “what the hell, I’m joining in!”

I felt like after I did the dance, my relationship with the fans went up a little notch too because they used to sing “Bolo, Bolo, give us a dance”. It was around that time when the band LMFAO had the song out too and I actually did a little dance at for them at West Ham too. It was really funny!

I could have never danced as well as him, but it was funny - it was all over social media and it was a good memory. It stirred something, I saw some Strictly Come Dancing mock-up photos with me and Asamoah dancing - it was always meant to be funny so it was good that it had that reaction. It’s a good memory - and winning away at Chelsea was of course brilliant.

RR: We have to talk about that amazing victory over Tottenham. It was one of the most entertaining games ever at the Stadium of Light, and the performance was topped off by a world class goal from yourself. How good was that feeling when your volley hit the back of the net?

BZ: It’s up there. It was one of those ones where you had to reach for it, both feet off the ground and on the volley. It was one of the nicer ones I scored for sure and it was scored against a good team in Tottenham and against a pretty good goalkeeper in [Heurelho] Gomes.

Because I didn’t play too often, sometimes I felt like I had to do something to prove myself more and scoring goals like that felt good within myself because I could show what I could do.

I felt I was never a bad influence around the ground, I helped the younger boys - but due to lack of playing it was nice to have moments like that and games like West Ham away.

RR: Were the signs there that the club were headed in the wrong direction? Your final season was the last one where we weren’t in a relegation battle before we eventually dropped out of the Premier League in 2017.

BZ: It always easy to say afterwards isn’t it? But like I said before, the mentality was ‘everything was fine as long as we were not in the relegation zone’ - that will catch up with you.

I could never have foreseen how bad it would get with two relegations, but you’ll have noticed at the end of last season I posted on Instagram because I couldn’t understand how you can get from tenth in the Premier League to League One.

The club have such a fantastic set of fans that are always behind the Lads. The area needs Sunderland, it’s in the community and it was very much so when Niall Quinn was there, it would get out into the community and get involved with people in the area. When Sunderland do well, the whole area is positive.

It’s a great club like that so when Sunderland were relegated my first thoughts were with those people, the fans and the fantastic community at the club. People like Nadia who was the player liaison officer, all these lovely people have to deal with this situation and may be out of a job just because the set up isn’t right.

I just hope with the new owners they can make the right steps and be back in the Premier League in a few years time.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League
“In the end, I just wanted to play more games and enjoy myself a little more as a footballer.”
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

RR: Talk us through your reasons for leaving the club - as I understand, your contract expired and you moved on. After your departure you never played professionally again, and Sunderland were in fact your last club. Was that the way you envisioned you’d end your career?

BZ: Because I had played more than half of the games I was entitled to a renewal of the contract and Steve Bruce said the door was open to sign it whenever I wanted, but to be honest I politely put the contract to one side as I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore.

The final season I had at the club it was like a milestone to finish tenth in the league, but it could have easily been eighth or fourteenth, it was that close between a few teams. I just felt, as I stated earlier, that wasn’t the mentality to push on and get better - something I have always tried to do.

On the final day a few results went in our favour and we beat West Ham 3-0, but it could have been different had some other teams results not worked out. I wasn’t enjoying it at the end and I thought if I was going to have one more season, I wanted to enjoy it a bit more. Of course, it ended up being my final game.

I decided for myself to leave the club a month before the end of the season.

I only made it public after the last game against West Ham. I made a decision and I did what I felt I had to do. I don’t look at it as a bad decision, I just wish I had another season where I played and enjoyed my football because now my last game was against West Ham, I was captain, we finished well and I scored - it sounds perfect, but I didn’t know it was my final game.

Want to keep up to date with what Bolo is up to? You can follow him on his Instagram account right here.

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