RR: Hi Martyn! Thanks for sitting down with Roker Report to discuss your time at the club. Little ice-breaker to begin with. Who was the best player from the reserve/youth squad you grew up with that didn’t make it professionally?
MW: (Long pause)... that’s a tough one, because most of the lads got pro contracts, but if we’re talking players who didn’t play for long...
Argh, this is difficult. Natty [Nathan Luscombe] probably.
When he played for the youth team he had so much pace, he could go from naught to 80mph in seconds, he was so direct. It was just one of those things where he just didn’t go and kick on sadly. Most of the lads went on to have careers after Sunderland, but sadly there’s a small handful who never got long in the game.
RR: You went to the same school as me in South Shields! I remember at 7-8 years old you were in the Manchester United school of excellence. Talk me through how a player is scouted, signed and brought up by Sunderland in the Academy from your experience?
MW: Manchester United’s School of Excellence is where it all started for me.
Basically the School of Excellence was a regional thing; they had camps all over the country. The North East one was based at Gateshead Stadium and although I had the chance to go to Manchester, it was just too far. I was very grateful for all the help my parents gave, but we only had a car to get us from A to B.
Playing there [Man. United SoE] and for my Dad’s local team, Boldon Colts I was spotted by Sunderland. It was a bit easier back then [moving from Academy to Academy]. Sunderland asked me to come down to the training ground and see how I got on. I was about 7 or 8 when I was picked up - so I was quite young really.
I was very fortunate I got picked up early and the rest, they say, is history.
RR: Are your family Sunderland fans? Have you always supported Sunderland?
MW: My Dad’s a cockney - so he’s a West Ham fan, but the rest of my family are all Sunderland. My Uncles, Aunties, Cousin - yeah, they are all Sunderland.
I was obviously Manchester United when I was really young because of where I played, once I got older and started training at the Charlie Hurley centre I got a soft spot for Sunderland but when you start really growing up I realised Sunderland were my team because of my family and where I’m from.
Obviously I had that connection to Roker Park, but going into the Stadium of Light was amazing - I knew Sunderland were my club.
RR: How important was Kevin Ball to your upbringing as a player and as a person? Is there anyone at the club you looked up to who doesn’t get the credit they perhaps deserve?
MW: I would say Kevin Ball deserves 95% of the credit for where I am today. What he did for me and for our youth team alone is incredible. He was incredible not just for what he did on the pitch with us, not just because of his football advice, the way he trained, played and his approach to the game, but he was just a genuinely good person you could go to about everything, you could speak to him about anything at all.
I always remember the first time I trained with the first team with Jack [Colback], Jordan [Henderson], Lidds [Michael Liddle] and Kaysie [Michael Kay] and when we came back, he gave us a good bollocking (laughs). He was saying “you think you’ve made it, but you’ve done nothing yet! This is where the hard work begins”.
It was personal stuff, he just wanted to make sure we were focused and ready to keep giving it everything to improve us. He’s an incredible man. I can’t give him enough credit.
RR: Which senior pro did you go to for advice and guidance?
MW: It was different then, the youth team players were scared of the first team. If you saw them it was like “woah, that’s the senior pros” - it’s not the way it is now. You didn’t really know how to interact with them you know?
Neil Bailey had a huge part to play in my upbringing because he was the bridge between youth team and first team and he would help integrate us.
We were fortunate we had a couple of local lads who were always wanting to help and pass on advice because they were in the same boat as us. I always remember Daryl Murphy helping the young boys too, giving us advice and trying to help us.
Obviously you had Grant [Leadbitter] who was an inspiration for players like myself because he’d gone on to play regular for the first team and he was always passing on bits of advice. Cattermole as well was good for that too. I think him and Grant ‘got it’.
I wouldn’t say anyone took me under their wing so to speak, but Grant, Daryl and Cattermole were always there and keeping an eye out for us, they got the situation we were in, they got the club and they always wanted to help the young lads out.
RR: Playing for Rangers, you had the experience of the rivalry up in Glasgow. How do you think the intensity compares to say Sunderland vs Newcastle?
MW: The intensity in both games is massive, without a doubt. I can see the similarities between the cities and it’s “all or nothing” sort of outcome. The actual games themselves are really intense.
The build up to the Wear-Tyne derby is massive, you hear about it for a few weeks before hand, but the big difference with Rangers-Celtic and the Old Firm is how long the result and the build up lingers for - it’s months and months. It’s pure hatred.
In Glasgow it goes on for weeks on end, it’s built up in the papers for weeks, the fans start turning up to the training ground weeks before and talk about it, you had people coming up to you in the street - I mean, you had people even coming to your door. There’s nothing like it. It’s sheer pure and genuine hatred.
I know rivalries are rivalries and people are going to dislike each other on game day, but I can’t even put into words the feeling of the intensity that game generates in the ten or so day leading up to. It’s just sheer rivalry and actually hatred for each other.
RR: After impressing in the reserves, Roy Keane threw you straight into the mix against Manchester United on Boxing Day. What did he say to you?
MW: It was my first time with the first team! The youth trained until Dec 22nd and then had Christmas off, but it got to 22nd December and Bally said they first team needed a body so I stayed on to train with them over the Christmas period.
I literally didn’t find out I was playing til an hour before! I thought nothing of it [the training], went to the pre-match meeting and there was my name on the sheet. I just thought “whaaat?”.
He told me just to do my best, train hard and give my all. I wasn’t prolific at youth team but I worked hard and Bally, Neil Bailey and the coaches appreciated that I think. Roy just told me to do my best, show what I’ve got and play my own game.
I was really fortunate to make my debut that day and I still remember loads from the game. I remember I switched to left-wing later in the game and in about the 70th minute I had Cristiano Ronaldo running at me - surreal! Just a shame about the result.
RR: How did the loan move to Leicester come about and how important was that loan move for your development?
MW: Yeah, it was crucial. I had that little loan spell at Charlton, but that was different. It was a difficult place to play at the time, they were on the verge of getting relegated and they had eight loan players when they could only name a total of five in the match-day squad. Being the young lad there for experience, I was easy to leave out. Charlton was tough for those reasons and it wasn’t very beneficial so I came back.
Steve Bruce came in the season after and said I needed game time. He knew I had done well in pre-season, but I needed minutes. So he sent me, Jack and Jordan out on loan and that was massive playing first team football.
I could have stayed at Sunderland and got fifteen minutes here and there, maybe got a chance if someone got injured but I agreed with Steve Bruce that I needed minutes and agreed to go and moving to Leicester was massive for my career, yeah.
I had a great year. I think loans can sometimes be seen as underappreciated by players, knowing they’ll go back to their parent club, but I wanted to have a really good go at it. I had a good manager there who looked after me and Leicester had a good young squad that had been promoted from League One - I scored 12 goals come season end, so it worked out perfectly for my first year.
RR: When Sunderland accepted the bid from Leicester City of £3m, did you want to go. or did you want to stay and fight for your place?
MW: I had quite a good pre-season in Portugal which was nice and when the season started I was getting on the bench, coming on here and there so it all felt positive, I had just signed a new contract too and I felt confident. Darren Bent was the main man though and he was on fire, so I knew I had to be patient.
Last day of the transfer window comes and Steve Bruce came to me and said he didn’t want me to go, he thought I was a great young lad but Leicester had made a bid and it was an opportunity for me. The club needed funds to finance the Asamoah Gyan deal as well.
I saw it as an opportunity to go back to a club where I really enjoyed my time, I had loved it there previously, I knew the place and it was a chance to get to play. It was difficult though, definitely, I had just signed a new contract and my family where planning on staying in the North East and getting settled, buying a house and all the stuff you do to settle. I was buzzing because I’d had a good pre-season, but I just thought I’d had to go for it.
In hindsight, should I have stayed? Maybe. I was close to the first-team and could have came on, got a goal and things could have changed. Hindsight though is a wonderful thing isn’t it?
RR: You were linked with a move back to the Stadium of Light last year when Simon Grayson was here, but in the end you signed for Mick McCarthy at Ipswich. How close were you to coming back?
MW: There was a lot of talk between myself, my agent and Sunderland but Sunderland needed to move players out to make the move happen and they couldn’t get them out at that time fast enough for the move to happen.
I was on their list of a few potential players and I’ll admit I tried to push the move through, but Sunderland had a lot of players on their hands at that time on big wages and the move had to be right for them. They couldn’t shift them following relegation for the move to happen and the financials meant it could happen.
Did I want it to happen? Absolutely.
I remember I sat in the car with my agent in Glasgow and he said “okay, there’s clubs interested, but unfortunately we don’t have Sunderland” and I just went “argh...s**t”, because I knew it was close, but it was a case of they needed to move a player out to balance the wages etc. That player didn’t move and it fell through. That’s football I guess.
Hopefully I can come back in the future though, who knows.
RR: You had an absolute stormer against us for Ipswich Town last year and scored two. Talk me through what it’s like scoring against the club you love and grew up supporting.
MW: It was always, always going to happen wasn’t it? I say that to everyone. Every player at some point goes back to their old club and does well, you can’t explain it.
It was weird though, I didn’t really feel like I was scoring against the Sunderland I know. They were going through such a difficult time and it didn’t feel like the Sunderland I know and remember, which was a weird feeling. They were having an awful run of results and it wasn’t nice to see.
It was like a shell of themselves, it wasn’t the real Sunderland, if you know what I mean? The wasn’t the Sunderland I had supported for years and years.
RR: You’ve played under some huge names. Roy Keane, Sven-Goran Eriksson and now Frank Lampard but who was the best and worst manager you’ve played under and why?
MW: I wouldn’t say ‘worst manager’ but my season under Sven was difficult and I didn’t really enjoy it. I had a difficult injury and was in and out of form. A lot of things went wrong, we had a big squad and I was in and out of it. So under Sven was my worst time.
The best is difficult, because I’ve had so many good managers for so many good reasons. The gaffer now [Frank Lampard} - what he had achieved in his time as a player and the experience he brings is invaluable at this stage in my career, he’s helping my progress and get better. I’m loving my football under him at the moment.
Roy gave me my chance and knew what I was about and knew what I wanted to do. Unfortunately I didn’t play under him enough because I went on loan and when I came back he had left. But that season where he got us out of the Championship shows you how good he was. He dragged the club from the bottom and turned the entire club around. When I played under him, and where I played under him was brilliant.
I would have the say the best is Mick McCarthy for what he did for me last year though, to be honest. He gave me the chance to play back in the Championship, he got me out of Rangers when I was told I could leave. I had the best year of my career under him. He put his arm around my shoulder, supported me, gave me the opportunity and the platform to go and do my stuff. He was brilliant for me and the squad was full of good lads which had been build by Mick and his team.
It just felt like we had loads in common. He knew what I brought and who I was as a player and brought the best out in me.