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Interview: Roker Report Meets... Former Sunderland & Manchester Utd defender Danny Higginbotham!

In this, the latest in our ‘Roker Report Meets...’ series, we sat down with ex-Sunderland & Manchester United defender (and current Sky Sports commentator) Danny Higginbotham to hear all about his time as a player on Wearside.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

RR: Alright Danny! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your time at the club. Nice easy one to kick off with, we’re to play a little bit of word association! What’s the first word that comes into your head when I say...

RR: Roy Keane?

DH: Legend.

RR: Paul McShane?

DH: Warrior.

RR: Nyron Nosworthy?

DH: Funny, funny guy.

RR: Kenwyne Jones?

DH: Athlete.

RR: Niall Quinn?

DH: One of the nicest men in football - slightly more than one word!

RR: Fantastic!

DH: All the men you mentioned there would run through a brick wall for you. Brilliant characters.

I was with Kenwyne at Stoke and Southampton. Nyron was a brilliant person to have around the dressing room. A cult hero at Sunderland.

It was a great dressing room, but during my time there, I’m always the first to admit I under performed and it wasn’t anyone else’s fault bar mine and I’ve always said that through my career - I take full responsibility for it. I was so fortunate to do what I did for so long and anything that went wrong, in terms of my performances was purely down to me, and I’d say that about any club I was at.

It’s easy to make excuses. I think it’s important that when you look back on your career, the good and the bad, you realise it’s down to yourself, not other people.

RR: You joined the club just after the season started from Stoke City. I read that Stoke forced you to put in a transfer request? Does that happen a lot in football and what we’re the circumstances surrounding your move to the club?

DH: The thing I’ll always say is a football club is there forever, the supporters are there forever and a lot of times the club will make the player look like ‘the bad guy’ - and I’m fully aware and excepting of that because whether it’s Sunderland or Stoke, the club will be around long after I’m gone.

I’ll make no bones about it, it was a move that I wanted to make happen. There were two reasons really. I wanted to get back into the Premier League and I wanted to play under Roy Keane as well. Sunderland is a huge club and growing up as an apprentice at Manchester United, he (Keane) was club captain and a phenomenal player. To play under someone like him who was so driven and be at a club like Sunderland, I couldn’t turn it down.

I made Stoke aware I wanted to the move and it went back and forth until they say they’d do a deal, but they had to come out of it ‘looking okay’ and I fully understood that.

They asked me to put in a transfer request and I know how it works, and that I was going to be the bad guy, but I have no problems with it. It was something I had to do to push the move through and it was important for me to take that next step in my career. Sunderland were in the Premier League.

Manchester United v Sunderland
Danny on his debut for the Lads.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

RR: As a player that had come through the ranks at Manchester United, how big of a pull was Roy Keane? Did you have many interactions with him at United?

DH: When I was at United he was the club captain and one of the best midfielders in the world. As long as the younger players weren’t acting above their station, he was alright with them.

I had a situation once. I used to get Roy Keane’s old Diadora boots and I was delighted to be getting them, but somehow, somewhere - I still don’t know who - got in contact with Diadora and said I wanted a contract with them. I was 18-19 at the time and I got told Roy was looking for me at the training ground and he was angry.

I went home and spoke to my parents cos I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t just leave it so I rang the club and got his number, but he was out walking the dogs. Anyway, I rang back twenty minutes later not knowing what to expect...

He was unbelievable on the phone to me. He wasn’t mad or angry, he basically just said ‘look, Danny, you’re a young lad you don’t need to do that, I’ll get the boots for you’. It was a really good conversation between a senior pro, one of the best midfielders in the word and a young apprentice just starting out on a journey.

Sometimes people only see a side that they want to see with Roy.

He did a brilliant job at Sunderland too, taking them from the bottom of the Championship and stabilizing them in the Premier League and I think people overlook that sometimes.

RR; You made your debut at Old Trafford, we lost 0-1 late on, but you’re home debut came in a win over Reading I believe, which was Kenwyne Jones’ debut. What are your memories of the day, and was playing in front of the Sunderland what you expected?

DH: My debut had went really well from a personal perspective, I got man of the match from the local press, but as a new player you look forward to the home debut and it didn’t disappoint.

The crowd was fantastic, the atmosphere and the result of course. Kenwyne had signed at the same time as me. Now obviously I had been with Kenwyne at Southampton, but the progression he had in the year from me leaving Southampton and going to Stoke was unbelievable - he was so difficult to play against, unplayable at points.

But the first few weeks went well. I remember going to Middlesbrough and Liam Miller getting us a draw in the last minute - he was a great person in the dressing room and it’s a tragedy was happened because he was a fantastic man.

RR: When was the first time you saw Roy Keane really lose it? Was his temper all that it’s cracked up to be?

DH: He has his way of getting his message across. When he spoke you listened because of what he did in the game and his reputation. He had an aura that few players who go into management have.

What he had was a group of players that knew when they hadn’t done well. He had a lot of players at the club who had grew up at (Manchester) United - so he knew he had players who were probably self critical. He just had a unique way of getting the best out of you by certain things he’d say at certain times. He’d test you to a certain extent. I was used to it because I’d had that sort of coaching at United. It was like a reverse psychology almost.

My reserve team manager at United was a fellow called Jim Ryan. I’m not kidding you when I say for two years he’d be on at me every single day. Anyway, I made my full debut against Leicester, and we were training on the Monday, we used to get changed on the cliff and then drive over the road.

He said to me “jump in the car” and he asked me how I found it. It was a dream come true for me. My full debut at Old Trafford, all my family are United fans and we won, which I told him. I sat in the car and he said to me “is there anything you want to ask me?” and I said “I do actually! Why is it, no matter what’s been happening on the training pitch, you’ve always had a dig at me?” - and his response was brilliant.

He said “Danny, you’ve learnt a valuable lesson at the age of 20. The minute a manager or a coach stop having a go at you, they don’t care anymore. That might mean digging you out when you don’t think it’s deserved, because it’s because they think they can better you”.

It’s a lesson I took with me throughout my career. To hear that at such a young age it was fantastic. Roy was really similar to that.

Everton v Sunderland
A 7-1 defeat at Everton was not a day Danny enjoyed remembering.
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

RR: Shortly after you joined the club was the Wear-Tyne derby. Obviously, you scored our goal that day, but before we discuss the goal itself, talk me through what it’s like to be part of a Sunderland starting eleven on derby day. Do you get nervous/excited?

DH: There a whole story behind it. We played Manchester City away on the Monday night and we got beat. Usually what we’d do is shape on the Thursday and more often than not, it would be the starting eleven versus the players that weren’t playing. It was the first time I thought I’d be dropped because I wasn’t in the ‘starting eleven’.

Obviously, I was gutted. It was the biggest game of the season. On the Friday we always had an eight aside, really intense games they were as well. Roy would sit on the side and take everything in. I was frustrated, of course and I suppose I took all my frustration out in the game and scored two or three goals.

When I came in on the Saturday, I was in the starting line-up and I’ll admit I was surprised! So I didn’t really have time to be nervous - plus I was 29-years-old and I’d played so many games, I’d stopped having those nerves. I liked nerves though before a game to be honest - they’re good to have. They make sure you’re aware and ready for it.

The atmosphere was incredible. We gave a really good account of ourselves and I think we were so unlucky not to win. From a personal perspective though it was unbelievable to score.

RR: Now, of course, the goal! You didn’t score many, but your first was against the Mags. When the ball hit the net, have you experienced many moments better as a professional?

DH: It was unbelievable to score, as I say. Despite what was a very up and down season for me, people will give me the benefit of the doubt because of some of the goals I scored. Obviously the Newcastle one was the most important.

Playing under Tony Pulis at Stoke the season before, he placed a lot of emphasis on set pieces - he was unbelievable with that - he gave you this belief that every corner, you could score from it and I think all my goals came from set pieces or corners. I took that to Sunderland with me.

A defender’s satisfaction is to keep a clean sheet, so defenders don’t really get that (to score a goal in a big derby). It was unbelievable though when it hit the net, the knee slide, the fans coming onto the pitch etc.

To score a goal of that magnitude though, you can’t put in into words. From the minute the ball hits the back of the net to you getting back to the halfway line, the emotion that hits you is just indescribable. You just lose yourself in the moment, the atmosphere.

Whether you’re a supporter of that team you’re playing for or not, the feeling that hits you when it goes in is massive.

RR: The following week though we got battered 7-1 at Everton. What happened that day? It was a bit of a weird result given we’d been in most games that entire season.

DH: (groans) Ohhhh... yes.

I think it was one of those games and you look back, we didn’t start too bad, but then we went one down and we tried to chase it, then two down and we tried to chase it, then three down and so on. We kept trying to get back into it and maybe we should have just taken our medicine.

Honestly though, for anyone who thinks the footballers don’t feel the emotions of after results like that, let me tell you, I was supposed to be going to an old friend’s 30th birthday in Manchester afterwards. Following the game though, I got on the coach and once I got home, I didn’t open my curtains til Monday morning.

I didn’t want to speak to anybody, I didn’t want to be near anybody. I took defeats really badly. It effected me badly, I just wanted to be on my own. You try not to get too high with victories, or too low with defeats but the manner of those type of defeats got to me.

The beauty of football though is you have a game to get it out of your system the next week.

RR; In the reverse derby at St. James, you and Paul McShane were sort of thrown in at the deep end with Bardsley and Jonny Evans getting injured late on. Was it difficult getting thrown in at the deep end?

DH: My career is over now, I can’t change it - so I’m always open.

If I remember correctly, the game was in the April. What had happened, over Christmas we played Aston Villa, I’d scored and played the 90 minutes and everything was fine. On the Monday my foot had swollen massive though - turns out I had broken my toe.

Typically we had a bit of an injury crisis at centre half at that time, so I was asked if I’d be able to play three games or so with the broken toe. I didn’t train and I played to help out, getting an injection before the game. After those games, I was out for 4-5 weeks to help heal my toe and I had the period of coming back and getting to full fitness, but I hadn’t played very much - I think I played at Derby as there was an injury, then came out the team again. I was in and out a little.

Truth be told, I can’t remember if I knew I was playing - but you know what, despite all of that you’re a professional footballer, there’s no excuses. I felt harshly done for with the penalty truth be told, but I will never ever use that I haven’t played for a while as an excuse. I was 30-years of age, I wasn’t a kid. I was a professional, you train for the game week in week out and get ready to play if you’re needed. That’s football.

It was a bad game and a bad performance, no excuses.

Sunderland v Newcastle United
Start the pandemonium in 3, 2, 1...
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

RR: When I think of Danny Higginbotham at Sunderland, whereas most people remember the Newcastle goal, I remember that ‘Boro game when we stayed up. It was one of the best I have seen at the SOL - you scored in that too! What are your memories of that day?

DH: If you go back to the away game at ‘Boro, it was quite feisty! There was no love lost, which is how it should be.

The game was more or less winner takes all, in terms of whoever won had guaranteed survival. It was a game that just epitomised our season. We were never beaten and always kept going right until the end. Those were the type of characters we had in the dressing room, underpinned by the mentality Roy had put into us.

The amount of points we gained late on that season was unbelievable and to get the win over ‘Boro so late was typical of our season.

RR: What were the circumstances surrounding your departure?

DH: I was meant to be playing in the reserves against Newcastle and it was the last day of the transfer window.

Wolves had a bid rejected, and then Stoke had came back in for me last minute. I went and spoke to Roy first and he said he was happy for me to move on. I’m not that kind of player who just wants to sit on the bench and pick up his wages, so the move made sense for everyone. Stoke were a club close to my heart and it was a move that allowed me to get my career back on track.

Stoke had just been promoted and it was a club I knew, a manager I knew and Sunderland were getting their money back.

RR: You played against us soon afterwards, we lost and you played. What was that like?

DH: Yeah, I remember it well for one particular reason.

I think it was in the second half and you know when you’re going in for a challenge and you know you’re gonna get hurt, or that the other player might even give you a sly little dig? Well I went up for a header with Malbranque, right in front of the dugouts, and he elbowed me right on the top of the head - and it was on purpose! I thought it was a little bit naughty of him because there’s no way a guy of Malbranque’s height should be able to elbow someone of my height on the top of the head.

I lost my head a little bit and I grabbed him - chaos reigned for a little while if you know what I mean, but once I calmed down I thought “right, you’ve got a chance to leave a mark on him” as I was marking him.

Before I knew it, I saw him with the ball and I went to leave a bit on him.

I saw him with the ball running towards me. He’s hit it a few yards in front of himself and gave me a chance to get into the tackle, I didn’t care if I was getting a yellow, I’d take it. Anyway, I’ve gone into the tackle and I’ve taken the ball right - but I’ve also taken the man. I’ve got him and as he’s lying on the floor, I’ve got up to walk past him and I’m gutted as I realised it was actually Bardo (Phil Bardsley) I’d tackled! (laughs)

So I went over to him and said “sorry mate, I didn’t know it was you, you owe me!”. I got on great with Bardo as well, really great lad. Great character.

Stoke City v Newcastle United - Premier League
Danny’s move back to Stoke worked out for both clubs in the end.
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

RR: Do you wish you’d had more than a season at the club?

DH: Erm... yeah I do, but the circumstances didn’t allow that. The manager was prepared to let me go and I knew my days of paying regular games were numbered and I didn’t want to be a 30-year-old sitting on the bench - that wasn’t me.

I think the day I went George McCartney came in, Anton (Ferdinand) had came in. I knew I wasn’t going to play very much, so circumstance meant I had to move. I think it suited everybody.

RR: Grant Leadbitter rejoined the club this week. From your experiences with Grant, what does he bring to a dressing room?

DH: Oh, brilliant. I think he can bring a whole host of experience, because it’s a young squad. I think he’ll command respect because of what he’s done in the game, and he knows the club from being there before.

He was a leader, but in a quiet sense then. As he got older he grew into being a more vocal leader. He leads by example. I’ve seen him before and after games over the years and you could see him maturing year on year. He’s still got plenty to give as well.

I think he’ll be a fantastic addition to the dressing room and a fantastic addition on the pitch as well. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Grant.

He went through a really difficult period at Sunderland when he his Father passed away. It’s hard losing a parent and he was still a young man, but he took it all in, but he used it to serve him. He always had a drive, but it gave him even more of a drive. For someone so young to go through that and go out on the pitch and perform the way he did speaks volumes of the man Grant is.

RR: Finally, I’m intrigued about your international career with Gibraltar. For those who don’t know, how did you qualify to play for them, what was behind your decision and how proud are you to be part of Gibraltar history?

DH: There was talk of playing for them when I was in the Premier League but at the time they weren’t recognized by UEFA so it made no sense for them to fly me over and get paid for that money.

In 2014 though, that changed and at that time my Uncle was actually the manager! I was coming to the tail end of my career at Chester, but I really wanted to do it. I thought if I don’t do it, it could have been a regret. I didn’t have any regrets in my career, I had plenty of mistakes - which I learnt from - but no regrets, and if I had said no, that would have been one so I decided to do it.

My Uncle asked if I wanted to say anything as soon as I got there, to give any advice and as one of the older lads I said yeah. I introduced myself and I told them “your hard work is what has gotten you where you are now. I’ve came to help, I’ve came here to give help and advice but it’s you Lads that have gotten Gibraltar here. I’m happy to do anything I can to help”.

We were playing Slovakia and I think everyone expected us to get beat 6-0 or 7-0 and we started hell for leather! Most of the lads had been playing in the Gibraltan league and were used to winning 5-0 every week! So I tried to be organised and concentrate on the defensive side. In the end we drew 0-0.

It wasn’t so much a party atmosphere but everyone was happy, but the amount of tears was unbelievable. I just sat there among all this emotion - I wasn’t used to it. I spoke to a few of the more senior lads and I said to them “I know this is massive, but why is there so much emotion?” and they just told me “you have no idea how much it’s taken to get to this stage, to be recognised and share the same playing field as other nations and be treated in the same way”.

The President came in, all the important people from Gibraltar came in and it was just sheer emotion. It was something I’d never been part of.