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Interview: Former Sunderland midfielder Steven Pienaar lifts lid of David Moyes era & relegation

We sat down with former Sunderland midfielder Steven Pienaar to talk about his time on Wearside and to dig through exactly what went wrong for the club when we were relegated in his sole season at the club.

Southampton v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

RR: Hi Steven! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your season at the club. Nice easy one to begin with, who was the best player you played alongside during your time at SAFC, and why?

SP: You’ve got me on the spot a little with that one!

Jordan (Pickford) I would say. To see him the way he was then, he was very good and now with the way he has developed over the last couple of seasons. Jermain Defoe was obviously hugely important to the club too - he was the one with the ability to score the all important goals.

RR: You signed for the club just after the start of the season, making your debut against Middlesbrough. Did the move come as a surprise, and what convinced you to join Sunderland rather than return to South Africa, as was rumoured at the time?

SP: Yeah, my contract had finished with Everton at the time and I was weighing up my options. I had an offer to go to the States but I didn’t want to move my family to America for only one year. My kids were at school in the UK so I knew I wanted to stay in the Premier League.

Moyes gave me a call and we agreed I’d go over for a week and see the club, the city and he wanted to see how my fitness was because I’d had problems with injury the season before.

My first few days with the team, being in the dressing room and back on the grass - I decided I wanted to join Sunderland. When he (Moyes) asked me if I’d say I say yes straight away.

I had played at the Stadium of Light many times with Everton and Tottenham before, and I knew the numbers Sunderland fans came in for every home game was massive. It was a big club to join, so I wanted to come very much.

RR: Did you expect to play as much as you did, or did you expect to play even more? What was the plan for you coming to Sunderland?

SP: Yeah, I played more than I thought to be fair. Although if it wasn’t for the little niggles I got just before we played Burnley I might have played more.

I had just came back from an injury and looking back maybe I came back too soon. A few more days rest and I might have been okay, but I had a calf injury which we thought was just fatigue in the calves, but I had actually torn my calf.

I think Moyes’ plan was to bring me off the bench as a sub more often, but for me it was about working hard and showing I was fit enough to play. I think it was just about getting as many games as he could out of me.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League
Pienaar had an impressive debut against Middlesbrough, but the season unraveled quickly.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RR: Were the club, and Moyes, transparent regarding the financial situation at the club when you joined? Or did you not find out how bad things were till later?

SP: Yeah, with me it was quite clear.

My contract was quite clear, it was ‘pay as you play’- if I didn’t play, there was no salary, so I was quite clear on where the club was standing financially. He told me “listen, there’s not much money” and for me I just wanted to play. I hadn’t been playing at Everton too much and this was an opportunity for me to still play Premier League football and try and help the team.

It was an opportunity to play with a manager I had played with for such a long time.

RR; In the aftermath of that Middlesbrough game, David Moyes made the now infamous “we’re in a relegation battle” comment which frustrated fans as we’d played well against Manchester City the week before and were unlucky against ‘Boro. How did the players take that comment? Do you think it set the tone for the season a little too early?

SP: Personally, I wouldn’t have done it if I was the manager, no. It was only the second game of the season. I think he said that as a message to the board, to get more investment and bring in more players for his team.

If you look at it, he brought in a lot of players like myself (free agents). I think he wanted to strengthen the team and that’s why he said it, but I don’t think it was the right message. It’s not good for the supporters because it’s a negative and after only two games, there’s nothing there to judge that statement on.

The statement doesn’t doesn’t just play with the supporters but also with the players’ minds too. That negative energy just sits with the players for the rest of the season.

RR: You spent a lot of time under Moyes at Everton playing on the wing, but he seemed to see you more as a central midfielder when you came to Sunderland. Was that always the plan, and would you have preferred to have played more on the wing for us?

SP: When I first moved to England with Everton, I was actually never a winger! (laughs). I was an attacking central midfielder, like a number ten.

When I joined Everton, the manager (Moyes) told me I was too small to play in the position. He told me the way Everton played was physical and that the way I played was I was quick and I had skill, so he wanted to use me in a different position.

At Ajax I played the wing sometimes, whereas at Dortmund I was mainly central midfield, but I’m one of those players with a personally that knows the team comes first ahead of my personal preference on where I feel I play best, so I had no issue playing anywhere for Sunderland I was needed. If they asked me to play in goal, I would have done.

RR: How similar, or indeed different, was David Moyes approach/demenour at Sunderland compared to the time you shared at Everton?

SP: I think from what I have seen in the past, when I worked with him at Everton he was one of those managers who would tell you things you may not want to hear - he was a tough manager. When he came to Sunderland, he wanted to be similar in his approach I think, but some of the players just didn’t take kindly to that.

He tried to change his approach to adapt to the team. He was a little softer with them, he wanted them to go out and express themselves more. It was different to how he was at Everton due to the personalities in the team I think.

I personally said to him “boss, you’ve gone a little softer” and he said “we don’t have the same kind of characters that we did at Everton. I had to take a different approach with this team” - but on the training pitch, his coaching and work with the team was the same. His appetite for coach was exactly the same.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Premier League
Steven speaks highly of former captain John OShea.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RR: So where the characters in the Sunderland dressing room really different to what you had experienced at Everton?

SP: They were totally different.

Players from different countries, there was no bulk of British players that would be told things straight from the manager and just take it on the chin. Some of the foreign players would take things more personally.

Obviously I am not British, but I had played in the UK for a long time. I understood the mentality. If a manager comes in and gives you stick, you don’t take it personally, you get on with it and make sure you do what the manager wants you to do next time.

RR: Is that why he brought in so many ex-Everton players? To improve the dressing room?

SP: Yeah, he wanted that camaraderie in the dressing room. Especially near the end the players weren’t as one though and that’s why he wanted more players he knew, to try and improve that.

Unfortunately on and off the field though, it just didn’t click. The energy in the dressing room wasn’t there, it didn’t work. In fact, it felt a little like the players who hadn’t came from Everton would think we were only there because we knew the manager and that we were our own separate group. You could just sense that feeling. The players would act differently towards us - but at the end of the day, we were the same, we just didn’t want Sunderland to get relegated. That stays with you for the rest of your life.

RR: There’s no denying that the season itself was a disaster, but do you think we would have more of a chance at survival if it wasn’t for injuries that Victor Anichebe and Duncan Watmore received? How good do you think that front three of Defoe, Anichebe and Watmore could have been?

SP: Duncan was someone who got fans off their seats with his runs. We didn’t really have the numbers, we had a small squad and the likes of Kirchhoff, Duncan, Cattermole all got injured and we didn’t have the numbers or personel to replace them.

Duncan brought a lot of energy to the team, he’d chase stuff down and was someone who could run onto the end of the longer balls and give you an option. We didn’t have players like that to replace him.

I think, looking back, not just the injuries cost us, but also a lot of the individual mistakes to be completely honest.

RR: What did you make of the January break to New York? A lot was made of the trip, especially with redundancies being announced during the same week. Do you think it was ill advised?

SP: Sometimes those trips can change a season. For us - it didn’t, it worked as a big negative. The manager’s thoughts were to get us out of the negative surroundings in a place where you can just focus on regrouping as a team, but for many reasons the timing just wasn’t right.

You can blame the manager all you like, but it was the players who let the club down, the manager down and the fans down - David Moyes tried everything, such as taking us away, new approaches etc, but the players were the ones responsible for going out and getting the results. New York wasn’t the best timing, but it was just the manager trying another thing to get us going.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League
Steven felt the Sunderland dressing room was different to what he felt at Goodison Park.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

RR: You also played with Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji during your time here. This pre-season both players were sacked by the club. How were they both as characters during that difficult season?

SP: Off the field, they were both good guys to speak to to be honest, but they are both very different people.

Didier didn’t speak a word of English so sometimes it was harder to communicate with him although he was a good guy so I don’t really know what happened there. With Papy he had been with Chelsea and was a guy who understood the Premier League that wanted to get better and build and grow and I was surprised that happened to be honest, because he was a player determined to improve.

RR: Patrick van Aanholt moved in the January. Was he, or the move, disruptive in the dressing room?

SP: To lose such a good player at that point in the season was difficult, but he wanted to move on and it was obvious. As players, we just got on with it, there was no disruption.

RR: You’ve played for some outstanding clubs - Ajax, Dortmund, Spurs and Everton - who were challenging for trophies and were mostly fighting it out at the top end of the league. How hard was it for you going into a club like Sunderland, who were in an obvious crisis, and fighting at the wrong end of the table?

SP: I knew Sunderland well. I know the history, it’s a massive club. I played for Dortmund, Ajax, Everton etc yes, but the size of Sunderland as a club was still huge, the expectations are the same so I didn’t see any difference, no.

RR: Who was the hardest trainer at the club?

SP: There was a few.

Lynden Gooch is the first name that springs to mind, but also Jermain. Sheasy (John O’Shea) was someone who was always very focused and trained very hard.

RR: John O’Shea polarizes the Sunderland fan base because he captained and played for us during a really turbulent time. How was he as a captain and as a man in the dressing room?

SP: Like I said, Sheasy was one of those players that would always try to get the players set. He was always spending time trying to help the younger players in the squad and if a new player joined, it would be him that would bring them over and help them integrate into the squad.

He knew what it meant to play for Sunderland and he knew what it took to play for the club. A lot of people outside of the club won’t see what he did for the club, the little things and all they see is him being a part of a team that constantly was in struggle, but of all the players he was the one who made sure each player knew what it meant to play for Sunderland, he was the one that would do everything to try and keep the unit together even when you’re in the worst situation.

Everton v Sunderland - Premier League
Steven is now back at Everton in an ambassadorial role.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

RR: Obviously, the season didn’t go to plan for you, the team or David Moyes but how much did you enjoy playing for that fan-base, and living in the North East?

SP: I enjoyed every moment, from my first game till my last. Every time I got on the field I was happy. I did the best I could for the club and the supporters.

No player in the world is happy to be relegated, it was hard for me that it was my last time as a player in the UK and it was one of the saddest days of my entire career, but I was still very happy to be playing for a club as big as Sunderland.

I used to sit with Cookie (John Cooke) and ask him about what it was like when the club were flying high and he would tell me how much the stadium was bouncing, hearing all of this stuff, it gave me a feel for the club. Paul Bracewell used to speak all the time about what a fantastic place Sunderland and how great the whole place is when the club is doing well.

RR: Finally, I believe you are now the international ambassador for Everton. What does your role entail and how are you finding retirement?

SP: Yeah, it’s different to playing for sure.

I work with the partners and sponsors of the club and represent Everton and try my best to do it in the best possible way. I am still getting used to it, representing the club in a different way than on the pitch. You find out what the club is about off the pitch.

You can follow Steven Pienaar on Twitter and Instagram.

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