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Interview: Roker Report meets... former Sunderland strength & conditioning coach Mike Clegg!

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Mike Clegg spent twelve years as SAFC’s strength and conditioning coach before leaving in the summer. We caught up with him to discuss his experience of working at the club for so long, injury prone players, the “rotten core” and more.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Before we delve deep, you left Sunderland back in the summer. What are you up to at the moment?

MC: Yeah, I left in the summer. I just got married and was on my honeymoon when I received a phone-call and I was half expecting something that might not be too nice. We’d had a double relegation and the club was in a transition so I had a feeling I might get a call.

The call was very “club official” and me and the Mrs expected the worst ‘cause I loved Sunderland and we knew what was going on with the club - but it was a very basic, straight forward call where they said they were going to terminate my contract. It was a sad day for me and the family because I loved my time there. I still live in Sunderland with my two children and my wife is from Sunderland too.

Although I do follow Sunderland and want them to do well, I wish that was done in a slightly different way, but it doesn’t take away the 11/12 years I had at Sunderland because I loved every minute of it.

They’ve kept some great people though and I know what reputation Jack Ross and it’s pleasing to see them doing well.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers
Brought the club by Keano, Mike Clegg arrived in 2008 and stayed for over a decade.
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

RR: How did the move to Sunderland come about and what was the plan under Roy Keane when you first joined?

MC: To give you some background on this, my Dad opened up a gym when I was six in Ashton-Under-Lyne and I was always in the gym, seeing how they trained, how the body moves. Over time I did karate and helped my Dad clear the weights away. Of course as I was growing up I started playing football, but when I got a little older I ended up doing Olympic lifting.

When I finished my football career, I went back to working in my Dad’s gym and got qualified because strength and conditioning was my true passion in my life. I did that for approximately two years. Football was a fun game that I enjoyed playing for ten years, but my passion for a job was ingrained in strength and conditioning.

Now, I obviously had a history with Roy (Keane) from my playing days and my Dad was the strength and conditioning coach with Manchester United for ten years, so Roy wanted to bring me over and start this project with him under the Drumaville consortium.

Right from the off, we decided we wanted to be a high energy, explosive team who really needed to work on their explosive power and high press - a team that can win games in the last 5 or 10 minutes of games. Myself and Scott Ainsley developed a plan that we developed over long term and Roy trusted us in that.

RR: We scored so many last minute goals in that period. How huge of a focus was that from a strength and conditioning perspective?

MC: It was designed to be that way, it changed over the years with managers.

Some managers wanted all the players fit and didn’t want to train them to hard, but it’s the wrong way to be - the training needs to be intense. You need to periodise training so different days have different elements based on what you want you want to achieve.

Ultimately, with Roy, myself and Scott it was like ‘survival of the fittest’, instead of downgrading the training to the weakest, we upgraded to the strongest.

Sometimes we’d train the hardest on the Friday, which some people might find ridiculous but Roy used to watch and have a look at who’s brains on the game, who’s got the intensity and not slacking off. He wanted them like raw hungry animals.

We were renowned for last minute goals and myself, Scott, Roy and Tony Laughlin were adamant that was our prime driver - intensity, do that and we’d get our rewards at the right times.

RR: How do you handle the fitness of players with consistent injury issues like Jan Kirchhoff, Wes Brown and more recently Jonny Williams?

MC: Some players need to be managed, some are like thoroughbred horses - it comes down to recruitment.

As medical staff when a player is coming in, you’d sometimes look at the injury issues the and you’d think “oh God, why are you bringing him in?”. During the Premier League years Sunderland brought in a lot of players with good pedigree, but often had injury issues. You have to expect these players would break down.

We would turn down a lot of these players based on medical history, but when they were signed regardless we had to manage that. When players come in with a bad history, it’s a nightmare for the medical staff and perhaps Sunderland signed too many with injury problems.

When you sign a player there needs to be three things - are they talented? how resilient are they? And how many injuries have they had in the past?

Mike gives our regular podcast guest Keith Downie a medical.
Sky Sports

RR: How hard was it for the coaching and fitness staff going from manager to manager in such a short space of time?

MC: Luckily for me when Steve Bruce came in, I knew him - but of course he brought in his own people and had his own ideas of what he wanted to achieve, and quite rightly so.

You would look and see and take advice as best you can from them, but as you get more experience you see certain flaws in every manager and you try to add to that and help them with what they are trying to bring. I would never get on my soap box and tell a manager “this is how it’s done” because there’s many ways to skin a cat, there’s many ways to climb Mount Everest - ultimately you absorb the information and try to get to best practice.

RR: How was Paolo Di Canio from a fitness perspective? I’ve heard he had the players in every day!

MC: Paolo was a very, very professional kind of guy. He has his own way about him. When he came in it was a big shock to me from a political sense. You look at the region and what Sunderland is and you have a guy that has very different thought processes.

He had a lot of power and disrupted a lot of good stuff that was going on, but because of his impact and that great charisma it kept us up.

He brought in a lot of staff and the club had more than adequate staff already there, we’d use specific experts for injuries etc. If someone had a knee injury, we’d sent them to Germany to see our knee specialist for example - but he wanted everything to be sent to Italy.

He had an almost obsessive way about him that made it difficult for people to express themselves. He wouldn’t allow music in the gym, it had to be silent. He expected almost like an Italian military. He didn’t like laughing and joking.

There was many, many issues which exploded in that famous meeting in the gym where Paolo said some things out of line and it riled the players to the point they had a mini revolution against him - it was the right thing to do.

Carlos Cuellar, John O’Shea and a few of the older players stood up against him and ultimately he ended up leaving the club.

RR: How did he compare to someone like Big Sam?

MC: Big Sam was incredible at empowering his staff. He’d set up a meeting and he’d go round the table saying “name? job?” and he’d know everyone’s name and he’d say “what resources do you need to make sure you are the best coach you can be?”. He’d say “Cleggy, I expect you to be the best strength and conditioning coach in the country, so you tell me exactly what you need”.

I told him what I needed for the new season and he told us all to get everything ready for the staff of the new season. Anyway, the new season approaches and we have our staff meeting and he gathered everyone around like a Sergeant Major and he suddenly went “Cleggy, what’s this? It’s a disgrace” - it was only a small off season at the time and I had ordered everything I needed, but it can take up to six weeks to arrive so not everything I wanted at the gym had arrived by that point. He was going “I’ve given you the money and the budget to get everything! It’s a disgrace! A disgrace!” - as he’s losing it, the van arrived with all the stuff! (laughs).

I said “Gaffer, the van is there, come back in a bit!”. I got all the lads from the van, the fitness staff, the delivery guys and everyone to destroy the gym, getting everything moved and organised. It looked mint! When it hit about half five, I thought I’d go up and see him in his office and bring him down to show him. He put his arm around me and went “I didn’t expect any less Cleggy son” (laughs).

That’s what Sam did, he empowered you made you feel good about yourself. He trusted his staff, he employed them because he trusted them and some managers just want to do it all themselves.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Premier League
On Big Sam “That’s what Sam did, he empowered you and made you feel good about yourself”
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

RR: Duncan Watmore is still at the club and would have been someone you spent a lot of time with. What was it like working with Duncan through his rehab?

MC: The thing with Duncan is he’s not had a great amount of training history. He was at Manchester United as a youth team player, then he went to college and ended up at Altringham in non-league. He came to Sunderland quite lightweight and was exposed to a lot of football straight away and he’s also a fast, explosive player.

When he picked up his first injury he was naturally devastated. He’s a bright lad, he’s got a degree and he’s got good parents who know how to bring up a good human being. Around the club Duncan brings something different to the table with his personality. It’s a shame there’s not more lads like him in football. He can quote poetry or discuss the financial crisis and all that kind of stuff.

He’s someone I really enjoyed working with. He worked really, really, really hard to get back from that injury but the problem with those types of injuries is that no matter how hard you work if your leg gets trapped in a certain position and force goes through your knee it can happen again. The statistics shows how often that injury can reoccur. The type of player he is, he’ll knock it past the defender and if you have a 6ft2 defender going to get the ball and he clatters into Duncan, it can happen again. The way he plays he is open to that - but trust me, no one worked harder than him in the gym to get back.

RR: Why is it some players come back brand new from long injuries, but someone else can come back just that tad slower? Lee Cattermole seems to lose a yard with every injury for example.

MC: Lee has played at a very high level since the age of 16. His body’s been through war after war. When we’ve stayed up, he’s most likely been the one to galvanize and there’s a lot of stuff about Lee that is positive.

Lee has also had his own issues with his behavior and enjoying a beer which isn’t something that is unknown and the better you treat your body, the better it will treat you.

With Lee, I think he’s picking up injuries often and I think if you asked him he’d tell you, honestly, he’s barely played a game without pain and that’s testament to his commitment but it also means you pick up injuries.

He’s someone I’d always want in the trenches and someone I am proud to have worked alongside but I think it’s a combination of things I’ve mentioned.

RR: Who was your favourite manager to work with?

MC: Without doubt Roy Keane - but I was his man and it gave me an ability to do things the way I wanted to.

I got offered the chance to go to Ipswich with him. I went down and we chatted about it and I spoke to my family and I had a gut feeling to stay. Steve Bruce rang me anyway and that convinced me to stay. Roy didn’t speak to me for 2 years though!

I really liked Gus Poyet, I liked the staff he brought in. We had Lee Congerton and we were trying this new sporting director thing and it caused a bit of awkwardness because it was like first team then everything else afterwards - but Gus was always involved with everyone at the club and always trying to pull people together. He’d say things like “we can’t control upstairs, this is about us!” and he brought a really good spirit, there was something good about him. He had it like us against the world.

Roy and Gus were my favourites.

Sunderland v Cardiff City - Premier League
Mike was a big fan of Gus Poyet.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

RR: And your least favourite was maybe Paolo?

MC: You see, I went to every single pre-season tour. I went everywhere and it was brilliant, but I didn’t go on one tour - the Paolo Di Canio tour to Italy, because my wife was having our second child... I had missed the birth of my first child, so it was important to me.

I told him I preferred not to travel because of that and you know what? He was fine with it. He even sent me a text when she gave birth to Gabe congratulating us. So he certainty had something about him when it comes to that kind of stuff. I liked him but maybe because he had a football history.

His sports scientist, Claudio Donnatelli, was the weirdest man I’ve ever met in my life. He would do this thing where he’d click his fingers during the fitness sessions. He barely spoke! We’d do about ten minutes of sit ups then he’d say “Michael, you take the rest of the session”.

To be honest I could criticize every manager and praise them in the same way. Would I have enjoyed ten years with just Roy? Of course, but did I enjoy having all the other managers? It’s giving me experience in my role and brought so much more to my character, and that’s important.

RR: What did you make of Sunderland Till I Die?

MC: I learnt some things from it. When I first put it on I thought “oh my God, this could be tragic” - but you know what I loved about it? Just those opening 30 seconds, that song - it sends shivers down my spine and I’m not even from the area.

Every time I watched the next episode, it brought a tear to my eye because I’m just so proud to be part of this Sunderland journey, even knowing what was going to happen come the series end - the worst of the worst.

What it does to the rest of the planet watching, it shows people how much Sunderland means to the people of Sunderland, the city used to be such an affluent area 100 or so years ago and through different economic times it fallen on hard times, but football is at it’s core.

I think, in hindsight, it was a bad idea from the football club’s perspective because it was the most difficult time in the club’s history and there were cameras everywhere - I think it bred even more fear. But they did well showcasing the people of Sunderland. The little stories like Joyce and Patrick, Peter the taxi driver. As a series, it was very good and made me very proud as a little wannabee Mackem!

It was horrible to see loss after loss. I used to walk out of the stadium proud as punch when we beat the likes of Manchester United and Newcastle, but that season you’d walk out sometimes a little embarrassed. Hopefully Jack Ross and the boys get us back up this season and season two showcases everything that is great about Sunderland on and off the pitch.

We all want the Peter Reid, Quinn and Phillips days back because they were great times for the club. I remember when we finished tenth with Brucey and the fans still weren’t happy, fast forward a decade and you’re getting relegated to League One - sometimes you have to stick with a plan and see it through. You don’t want to be like them up the road [Newcastle], it’s embarrassing what goes on up there, they think they’re a big club, they’ve never won anything in years.

RR: Maybe we should have taken our concerns to Parliament like they did about Mike Ashley?

MC: Nothing surprises me about him, or that club to be honest. Yes, they have very passionate fans and all that but... I’m Sunderland till I die, I suppose!

Mike was a fan of Sunderland Till I Die as a TV show, but felt it built up fear in the dressing room.
Netflix

RR: I want your opinion on this. There’s a rumour of the “rotten core”, but where do you think the poison came from in the club? Many people looked at John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole.

MC: It was definitely not John O’Shea I can tell you, because he’s an absolute diamond. He was almost like the second manager, he’d make sure the players went out for meals and get the team bonding.

I think Sunderland had a lot of mercenaries. Highly paid without any heart, because of how the transfer system is. It was a constant flow of players who didn’t even know where Sunderland was.

Lee, John, Vito - good solid players who wanted the best for Sunderland, then you had five or six players in the squad who didn’t have the best interests of the club and it spiraled across a number of seasons with the ever changing managers. Then you had players like Honeyman, Lynden Gooch who 100% had the best interests of Sunderland at heart and the staff at Black cat house, groundsman, myself, [John] Cookie - people who’d been there years.

Remember Valentin Roberge? What a nice guy, but I remember him telling the manager he wasn’t mentally right to play - what’s all that about? It happened far too often and there was certain players you knew just threw in the towel and didn’t want to fight for Sunderland.

Sunderland became an easy paycheck, panic buys and what not - that was the rotten core if you like. Agents and mercenaries.