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Interview (part 1): Roker Report meets... ex-Sunderland & Bayern Munich midfielder Jan Kirchhoff

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We met up with former Sunderland midfielder Jan Kirchhoff in Magdeburg, Germany for a fascinating discussion about his entire time on Wearside - the highs, the lows and everything in between.

Our interviewer Graham in Magdeburg with Jan.

One of our most celebrated players of recent years, Jan Kirchhoff, left the Stadium of Light following our relegation back in 2017. Following a brief stint at Bolton Wanderers in the Championship, the 28-year-old cultured midfielder finds himself back in his homeland at Bundesliga 2 club FC Magdeburg.

On a recent trip to Germany, I had the idea that perhaps there was a chance I could tempt one of my favourite players in recent memory to agree to an interview. So, I pulled out my phone and Googled the Bundesliga. 2 fixture list, hoping to catch a glimpse of our former German anchorman.

With more than a hint of disappointment, I soon realized Jan’s new club FCM were away on the Friday night to Ingolstadt - but not to be deterred, I set out on a mission to see just how Roker Report could reach out to him and pin him down to discuss Big Sam, the Moyes era and just what the hell happened with Yann M’Vila. It would be an adventure at worst, right?

Rather wonderfully, after a few tweets Jan agreed to an interview and before you could say “f*ck the mags” I booked a bus journey from Berlin to the lovely little city of Magdeburg on the ‘Flixbus’.

Before you know it, we arrange to meet at Cafe Am Dofelsen which sits on the beautiful Elbe River, close to his accommodation, where he currently lives with his wife.

Nervous, I arrived twenty minutes early and, with my best broken German, tried to ask the waiter whether I could use my Barclaycard. Then, in walks Jan. With a quick shake of the hands, we exchange pleasantries, he offers to pay for the drinks, and we dive straight into it.

The beautiful, quaint city of Magdesburg is where Jan is currently enjoying his football.
Flickr and imago/Christian Schroedter

RR: So Jan, it was a nice two hour journey and I’ve had some questions planned on the bus, but first thing’s first - how are you and how is Magdeburg?

JK: Yeah, it’s fine. It’s a quiet city but we have everything we need. We feel already settled and Berlin is just around the corner - as is Leipzig. There’s plenty to do to stay occupied.

It’s just really nice to play football again. It’s fun. It’s been great to be part of a team again and luckily we’ve been successful in our first two games. It’s been great to just play in the profession I love again - there was a time when I didn’t enjoy it and I’m happy to be back playing football.

RR: Onto your career at Sunderland. Who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club and why?

JK: (Sighs) that’s a hard one. For me personally, as a midfielder, I have to say Yann M’Vila just purely for his talent.

RR: Oh Yann, why didn’t we sign him?

JK: Well, that was just the start of the problems really. It was a huge decision not to sign him.

He had such a huge impact on our game. Maybe it wasn’t an obvious impact, but as a teammate I felt him missing [when he left]. Him leaving made a huge impact and I felt the quality went down when he wasn’t in the team.

Yann was a cornerstone to our success. He’s an outstanding talent.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League
Jan was man of the match on his home debut.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RR: I thought you might have said Defoe!

JK: Well, he is the obvious answer, yes.

I also think when we talk about players the team missed, Younes [Kaboul] was a huge miss also. The decision by the board to let him go wasn’t good.

We exchanged a lot of players, position for position, for more money and the replacements were just not good enough.

RR: How did the move come about? Were they other clubs interested in you? You went from Pep Guardiola to Sam Allardyce - that must have been a culture clash!

JK: First of all, I did have some options, but with Sunderland it was the option to play in the Premier League, which was my dream and it was the option to go over and do that.

The Premier League pays good wages, so I could earn similar to what I was receiving at Bayern, so wages were not really needed to be discussed. The move to Sunderland was win-win. I only had one discussion with Sam before I came so it tells you how easy the decision was for me.

With Sam, I got the impression he would rely on me and count on my abilities - he wanted the exact same type of player that I am. He told how he wanted to play and it suited my style of play, it suited my strengths. So there was much thinking that needed to happen.

The other option I had was Stuttgart, but I didn’t want to drop down the Bundesliga - it was exciting to go into the Premier League and try something new and Sunderland was exciting.

RR: Did Sam Allardyce sign you as a number six, or where you signed as a centre back?

JK: That’s a common misconception about my career that I am mainly a defender. They see I am tall and they can’t imagine me in midfield, but I have played most of my career as a number six. I can play centre-half, but I much prefer defensive midfield because you get much more involved in the game.

It’s the role I enjoy - stopping counter attacks and then distributing the ball - and that’s a role Sam wanted me to play, too, as he wanted to play more from the back.

In my debut, he put me into a back five to give me some game time, but as we know - maybe it was a little bit early! (smiles)

RR: How did you recover from that debut? It started off so badly and most of us forget because of how fast you turned it around.

JK: I’m not a person who holds onto negative experiences.

One day you’re a hero, the next you’re a loser - it’s sometimes just the way it goes in football. It’s funny looking back because it was a good thing really - something I learned from.

First of all, the base of everything is about how much you trust your own abilities and I knew that game was just unlucky - I knew it wasn’t what I could offer so I always believed in what I knew I could do. I’m not frightened of any task or any... problems, you know what I mean? So I just step ahead because I believed I was good enough.

Secondly, I had immense support from the team and the manager. The team told me they had seen what I can offer in the three weeks of training, they told me they knew what I could do. Sam gave me brilliant support too, he was very positive and said he maybe put me in too early, but to forget about it because he knew what I could offer. The team and Sam were very positive about it.

Also, I was new to the city so I didn’t know of any Sunderland local newspapers - and I had a German phone - so I didn’t even have a chance to see the negative articles! (laughs).

Football is part talent, part luck, but what is huge is mentality. Many newspapers and online articles can write things and it’s about your ability to handle pressure. You need to step away and believe in your own ability.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Premier League
Der König.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

RR: Cut to the next game and you are man of the match. How important was that 0-1 defeat at home to Manchester City? It was a match where we really saw what the new signings such as yourself, Wahbi and Lamine could offer. And, despite losing, our run after that was very good.

JK: That’s how quickly things can change isn’t it?

I think in general our team was immensely talented. If you look at the results at the end of that season, if we had similar results from the start we would have been in the top ten of the Premier League. We might not have dominated games, but we were always capable of winning every game after that, no matter which team it was.

Against Manchester City, we maybe raised our levels due to the level of opponent, but what that showed was our ability as a team and we went on to show how talented we are and how good we can be in the games following that.

How well we played against Manchester City didn’t come as a surprise to me, for me that is the standard I expect of myself and the other guys like Wahbi and Lamine are the same - they expected that standard.

RR: What differences were there between an internationally heralded coach in Pep Guardiola to a supposed typical British manager in Sam Allardyce? Do you think Sam Allardyce gets the credit he deserves?

JK: Yes - he is definitely underappreciated as a coach. He makes the right signings, he knows exactly what kind of players he wants for what sort of team he wants. Secondly, his tactics might be “basic” but that’s what you need as a footballer. To have a plan and to know what you should expect from your teammate, you knew what the plan was, who was running onto which pass, who was defending which area - as a whole team, Sam’s idea was clear and effective.

You can discuss if it’s nice all you want, but what he does is he teaches his game plans very well - it’s very, very clear.

He’s an excellent man manager too. He gave us all lots of support, not only the starting eleven but the whole squad. He made them all feel valued and when a manager is like that you understand your contribution to the team. That sort of attitude is so underrated, especially when you see other types of managers don’t get the results that he does.

Yes, Klopp and Pep Guardiola are top, top managers, but footballers can’t all be Messi or Neymar, what Sam does he is very good at and I have nothing but good memories of him.

RR: (sighs) I miss Sam...

JK: Yeah, we all do!

Swansea City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

RR: How did he manage your fitness in comparison to, say, David Moyes?

JK: My problems fitness-wise before I came to Sunderland were all impact injuries, not like my body breaking down or anything, and what Sam did really well was he almost made like a project out of me to benefit the whole team.

Sam Allardyce really valued his players, but he also valued the physios and the fitness coaches the exact same. He gave me lots of freedom with my fitness, if you know what I mean. He let me have a relationship with the fitness staff and a freedom to discuss with them the things we could do to stay fit; his employees also trusted me on what I thought we could do to help my fitness.

It was the perfect thing for me and the perfect thing for us.

What changed the next year with David Moyes was I was pressed into a system. It was almost like he was saying “you have to do the this thing or that thing or you will break down”. My body just couldn’t do that at this time, it felt like do or die if you know what I mean, it lacked the freedom I was given by Sam Allardyce.

Moyes sometimes wanted me to play but my body wasn’t really in the shape because the rehab was too much and pushed to my bodies limit. It was like my body was constantly in a ‘red zone’ and he didn’t break me out of that cycle - but he wanted me to play because of my my qualities.

Sam managed my fitness better.

RR: Under Sam Allardyce, not only did we have the quality if yourself, Defoe, Khazri, Kaboul, Kone etc but the team spirit seemed good, too. The players always celebrated together. How was the team spirit?

JK: The team spirit was massive. It was a great time. I’m not a coach, so I don’t know how Sam did it, but the group was just brilliantly put together. You had real leaders like John O’Shea and everyone in the team had someone they were close to. There were no assholes, it was a fantastic harmony and a well fitted group.

It was easy and we all loved going into training. When you have that spirit it makes your life easier, your work easier and everything. You liked coming to training early and you wanted to leave late and football is sometimes not like that.

I don’t know how he did it, but he would bring people that just fitted into the group, or he’d manage the player and mould them into the group dynamic.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Premier League
Big Sam is still missed by Jan to this day.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

RR: What was your experience of the Wear-Tyne derby in comparison to other games in your career?

JK: The game itself, the intensity felt normal. The atmosphere around the stadium, though... it was one of the games I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

It was the first time I had a huge derby where I felt little pressure because I knew my role and I could just go out and play and enjoy my game.

I remember just before we were coming out, the fans were so loud and there was such a roar, you couldn’t hear your team-mates, but I was just smiling because I was happy and excited. I will always remember that.

RR: You played as if you had a pipe and slippers. How the hell do you stay so calm in a derby?

JK: It comes back to what I said before and having confidence in your own ability. Obviously the manager plays a big role in giving you that confidence.

Also when you know your team and the roles Sam wanted you all to play combined with the talent the team has - we felt we were better than this team we were facing. That believe gives you all you need.

You have players who are fired up, go into sliding tackles and are always talking, but then you also have the calm guys. You need both. I think one of my talents is remaining calm and I showed that this day.

RR: The end of the season run in was so tight shortly after that, but those Chelsea and Everton games were breathtaking. What are your memories of them?

JK: To be fair, the Chelsea game we didn’t play that well but we somehow found a way to win. When I came off, I thought we’d lost the game. I don’t know how we pulled out the result, but we did and it gave us the chance to finish it against Everton.

In the Everton game we just got into a flow. We watched videos of them, studied them well and we just knew we could win this game. I think it was the best we played all season, we controlled the passing and were great in possession. We pressured them and it just felt like in this moment the team was finally ‘free’.

We had been under pressure most weeks, so even though we knew we had the talent we would sometimes be a little safer, but against Everton we just thought, “let’s run over them”.

From the very first minute we did that, the team and the fans. The atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic.

Manchester City v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League
From Pep to Big Sam, Jan played under the best two managers of all time in quick succession.
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Join us tomorrow for part two as Jan talks us through Sam Allardyce leaving, the David Moyes era, how the club’s whole attitude seemed to change quickly and the circumstances behind him leaving.