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Interview: Roker Report meets... ex-Sunderland (& current Falkirk) left back Thomas Robson!

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We sat down for a chat with Academy graduate Tommy Robson to hear all about growing up going through the club’s system, making his Premier League debut under Big Sam, leaving, his regrets and more.

Watford v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

RR: Hi Tommy! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your time at Sunderland and your career so far. First things first, how is Falkirk and how are you enjoying sunny Scotland?

TR: Yeah, I’m enjoying it.

It’s a nice place to live and the team has been in really good form in 2019. We’ve won three and drew two so we’re unbeaten and you can’t ask for much more than that. I’ve not been playing as much as I would like, so I’ve just been concentrating on working hard and trying to get back into the side.

I was up here (Glasgow) at the weekend with some of the lads and it’s really nice.

It’s also pretty close to the North East, it’s only a couple of hours away really, although I don’t go back home that much to be honest - I really like it in Scotland.

RR; Nice easy one to begin with - who was your best mate during your years at Sunderland and why?

TR: Michael Ledger. We are both from a similar area in the North East and when he was first at Sunderland he couldn’t drive so I used to pick him up and we’d go to training together.

I still speak to him all the time. I actually spoke to him today. He’s over in Norway with Josh (Robson) and he loves it there, they are both really enjoying themselves. They keep telling me I need to come over and see Norway!

Sunderland v Everton: Premier League 2
Now playing for Notodden, Michael Ledger was Tommy’s best mate at SAFC.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

RR: Isn’t it pretty expensive though?

TR: Aye, I need to get saving - he’s says it’s about £8 a coffee!

RR: You were born in Stanley. Do you come from a Sunderland supporting family? What are your earliest football memories?

TR: My family are quite mixed, although my Grandad is a big Sunderland fan.

My earliest football memories are actually going to see my Dad play. He played for Consett in non-league for years and I’d go and see him play every week. As I got older and being at Sunderland that changed (his allegiances) but my football upbringing was in non-league and it was great!

RR: How were you spotted and what was the process of signing for the club?

TR: I was at Darlington originally.

The club obviously disbanded as many people know and I came over when the original club folded. Craig Liddle was in charge during that season before the club went bust and had to play a lot of young lads, so when he went to Sunderland and took over as the new development coach, he brought me over with him, so I wasn’t spotted as a school player, Lids brought me along to Sunderland based on what he had saw at Darlington.

Craig Liddle was a huge influence for me but he was only there for a year, then we had Ged (McNamee) come in and his was a big influence too.

The club were actually ready to release me at one point and said I could speak to other clubs. At that point Fulham came in and offered me a three-year deal and were ready to take me on - then Sunderland actually went and gave me a two year professional deal. It was a bit weird really how it happened!

RR: How difficult was it for a 19/20 year-old player who wants to get in and around the youth team when you change managers on an annual basis?

TR: It’s really tough. When you’re a young player you want to go out and impress when you’re on the training pitch but whenever a new manager comes in, it’s just like starting again and again - especially when it’s so frequent.

I felt like I would be doing well and impressing the new manager and then a new one would come in and I had to prove myself all over again, so it’s really difficult and not ideal.

Tom is enjoying life over the border.
Falkirk FC

RR: Which senior pros would you go to for guidance and advice?

TR: John O’Shea and Wes Brown, without a doubt.

Catts (Lee Cattermole) was pretty good too.

RR: I keep hearing about how good John O’Shea was in the dressing room. Was it a case of him and Wes Brown were former Manchester United players with plenty experience, or was it just the size of their character?

TR: It was their characters, they both had huge personalities.

Wes was a little bit different in that he was a bit more of a ‘funny’ character, he’d had a laugh and a joke and make you feel comfortable, whereas John was more professional if you like.

The thing with John is that even when he wasn’t in the squad and Lamine and Younes were playing at the back, he was still talking and guiding the team from the sidelines. I think when he eventually retires, he’ll make a great manager or coach.

He was great in the dressing room.

RR: What about Younes Kaboul as well? He was a former captain and experienced head at the back too.

TR: Yeah, actually, you’re right - Younes was brilliant. He wasn’t a young lad anymore when he was at Sunderland but he lost non of his quality and he was vocal on the pitch too. We were all really shocked when he left because we were losing so much quality in him going.

RR: How was your relationship with each manager? I believe you played under Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat, Big Sam and David Moyes.

TR: My first season was with Gus Poyet and I really liked him. He would implement the philosophy he had across every team, from the first team to the youth teams, which I think is really good because it sets you up for fitting into that first team.

I made my debut under Big Sam, but the first time I actually traveled with the first team was under Gus Poyet, I was part of a 19-man squad and although I didn’t get on the bench, I went to the game on the coach and mixed with the first team. Unfortunately that game was away at Southampton - we lost 8-0! My Dad was ringing after and saying “you’re not going away with the first team again!” (laughs)

RR: Did you learn how to perfect the volley from Santiago Vergini that day?

TR: (laughs) No - I don’t think anyone could strike a ball as well as that!

RR: What about Advocaat and Big Sam - how was your relationship with them?

TR: Yeah, I loved Big Sam. He has this ability to make you feel empowered and important. You knew your role in the team and the way you would set up. It was ‘basic’ but it was good and it worked. It was all about playing the ball down the channels and knowing where each player should be.

Advocaat I didn’t really get much of a chance with to be honest, I was in the reserves when he was here mainly.

Tommy in action against Rangers at Ibrox in last season’s Scottish Cup.
The Daily Record

RR: You played on the final day of the season against Watford. What are your memories of that game? When did Big Sam tell you that you were playing?

TR: Brilliant day. It all went by in a bit of a blur to be totally honest, but it was a fantastic experience. I remember the photo of me and George (Honeyman) looking for our family in the crowd, but there was so much red and white and I couldn’t actually find them!

It’s quite a funny story to be honest because we played Everton on the Tuesday I think and Big Sam had moved us into the first-team (Robson and Rees Greenwood) dressing room at that point. Anyway, we’d stayed up and everyone was buzzing and the atmosphere around the place was brilliant.

Sam got everyone a can out and all the lads were enjoying a beer and having a really good laugh but me and Rees set there with our arms to the side like statues. We had just been promoted to the first team dressing room, we barely spoke.

So Big Sam gets two beers out and looks at us both and says “you two not having one? You might both be playing the next game, but that’s not till Sunday!” - obviously that builds excitement and makes you think I might be getting a game and it was brilliant.

He told us both we were playing on the Saturday and he just told us there way no pressure, go out and play your normal game, the club is safe and you can go and enjoy your day. He was brilliant with us.

RR: I’ve heard rumours that you were desperate to get out on loan the season David Moyes was here, but he wouldn’t let you go as he wanted back up for PVA. How frustrating was that?

TR: It was really tough; really frustrating.

I was part of the first team dressing room under Sam Allardyce and felt really valued and in pre-season I was feeling really good, ready to work hard and push for a place in the first team, and with five weeks or so I was put back in the reserve team and moved out of the first team dressing room...

RR: How was that for confidence?

TR: Exactly, when you talk about the confidence of a young player who’s had to prove himself to different managers and then that happens, it’s hard to take.

I went to see him in his office and have a chat with him about not playing but he just said that he needed cover for Patrick Van Aanholt. I appreciate there was only one left-back at the club but I don’t think he had any intention of playing me so I just wish the decision was made in the best interests of the player in mind.

I suppose it may have been less important if it’s a senior player, but as an under-23 player and young professional it is essential to get that first team experience.

Six months in League One and Championship would have helped me massively.

Tommy never felt like he’d get a chance under David Moyes.
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Weren’t Barnsley interested in you? There were a Championship club at that point. How frustrating was that?

TR: Yeah - my agent told me Barnsley and Peterborough were interested in a loan deal. This conversation I had with David Moyes was two days before the transfer window shut as well.

I had basically played 100+ under-23 games and I just wanted to get involved in league football, test myself against experienced professionals. I wanted to go out and play football at league level, because youth team/under-23 football is just not the same.

Some players can get comfortable playing youth team football and stay in the team for years. I didn’t want that, I wanted to get out and get games if I wasn’t going to get a chance at Sunderland.

David Moyes was the first manager where I just knew I wasn’t going to get a chance, and I told my agent as much. Even if Patrick got injured, I’m pretty certain he would have played a centre-back out of position or something. I just wasn’t going to get into his plans, so I don’t know why I couldn’t just go out on loan.

Thank fully, I did get out on loan eventually and went to Ireland (for Limerick) and that improved me so much just going over there and getting first-team football. I’m really pleased I had that opportunity to go there.

RR: Is there anything you’d change about your time at the club?

TR: Like I said, I wish I’d gone out on loan more. I feel like if I’d gone out earlier I would have more experience, I’d have learnt more at any earlier age.