RR: Things for you changed when Sam Allardyce came in. Costel ended up getting sold to Watford as you got back into the team. How did you find him as a manager and as a man?
VM: I always try to work hard and do well in training, and I continued to do so with that year I was out of the team.
Lee Congerton had a word for the next manager when Gus was sacked and he choose Dick Advocaat so it was obvious I wasn’t going to get a chance under him - Congerton never wanted me there in the first place. I never had a chance despite training well under Dick.
Big Sam came in and he was a lot more like Gus, he told me to train hard and show my talent on the training pitch and that’s what I continued to do. I was waiting for that chance. I wanted to replicate what I had done in the years previous.
Sam gave me the chance eventually and when someone gives me that confidence back I feel like I am at my best. We had a great end to the season and this was more like a replicate of the year under Gus.
RR: You mentioned confidence, many former players have told me that Sam was very, very good at making players feel great about themselves. How good is Sam Allardyce at making you feel good and at being the best that you can be?
VM: Yeah, he is great. Listen sometimes, you need this kind of manager, especially for myself. Having someone who tells you that you’re good and that he can see your talent, someone who works on man management and getting you back to the player he knows you can be - that’s what it’s like with Big Sam.
He brought me into his office and on the first day he just said “okay, show me what you’ve got” and I did. Following that he would praise what I have done and he probably did that with the whole team. It improved us mentally. I think you could tell that after January from the run we had.
We were one of the best teams in the form table.
RR: That team almost picked itself. You had Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone together at the back and it was one of the best partnerships of our modern times. How good was that partnership in front of you?
VM: Again, when you have a manager like that certain things everything clicks. He found his best eleven and we were a good team.
Younes and Lamine were two absolute beasts, two machines. Great defenders on top of their form, confident and they matched each other. One was quick, one was good in the air, Lamine was strong, Younes could recover well. If Younes couldn’t make it, Lamine would cover, Younes had amazing leadership too.
They both helped me to perform better. The team just clicked and they were incredible. That team could have fought for a place in the top ten of the Premier League. Jan (Kirchhoff) was brilliant in the middle, Wahbi could create so much and you had a goal machine in Jermain up front.
Yann M’Vila was fantastic - why we never signed him... (sigh).
Great moments again, we could have sprung into life and it didn’t happen again. It leaves a bitterness in my mouth - I’m a Sunderland fan still and it is painful for me, I was one of the longer serving players then and seeing the club where the are now when they wasted so many opportunities to grow and build a good team in the Premier League.
RR: You had been at the club for a long while by this point. You mentioned M’Vila there, but what about Younes Kaboul, why was he allowed to go?
VM: Well regarding Yann he would have loved to have came back - much like any player who played in those great times would and lived in Sunderland and played for those fans, with the magic moments we had. It was a decision above I think.
So many players love playing for that club because of the fans and the moments, so course he wanted to come back. I could go and ask Marcos (Alonso), Yann and Jermain (Defoe) and they would all tell you how much they loved playing for Sunderland.
Younes was in tears against Everton when we got safe. The day he let go - he was allowed to go so easy. I still remember the day clearly. He came out of the office and he couldn’t believe it (that he was let go so easily) himself.
Unfortunately that’s what happened, he was just let go so easily. It happened so often, it was like we were a beautiful toy at the end of the season that just got dismantled at the beginning of the season, and I don’t know why.
RR: So Younes couldn’t believe he was gone? It was put across by the club like he moved for family reasons - do you think he would have happily stayed?
VM: He wanted the club to show him some respect and a willingness to keep him there. He did have positives for going to London as it was closer to his family but I remember the day when he came out from the office and he said “the club didn’t do anything to try and keep me. They didn’t fight for me to stay”.
RR: That summer was a mess. You had the situation with Lamine Kone and the alleged Everton move too, Yann M’Vila waiting for the club to sign him at the airport and we spent £13m on Didier Ndong instead. Were a few players promised things and then they were revoked?
VM: Unfortunately that happened with a few players, yes.
I still remember we were in pre-season with Big Sam after another great escape, but it felt like with Sam this clicked - we needed to keep the core though and add to it so we could push on.
It felt like that summer we acknowledged we had made mistakes in the past, that we had gone through great escape after great escape but this time was the time to turn the corner. We had a good manager and we needed to build with him and invest. I don’t think Big Sam was helped with that though, even when he was here - Yann didn’t get signed, other players didn’t come in and then England turned up.
It was another moment, another time where we missed it. We missed the train to build on it.
RR: How did the players react when Sam left? Did you expect him to leave or were the players surprised?
VM: It was a massive shock - that week, even though we hadn’t played one game in the league - was the week Sunderland got relegated I’m sorry to say.
The fans and the players were in shock. We had fought so hard the year before and it finally felt like we had a team that could push on with investment and Big Sam.
When we got knocked down, we always got up and react and kept that Premier League identity, but this was the knock punch.
Big Sam was our leader and he just needed to be backed, keep the core of the team and add a little bit - if that happens, we would never be relegated.
RR: So the club decide to go with David Moyes. Why did that not work at all?
VM: The club had a massive shock with Sam leaving and we needed a big character to come in and get us going - unfortunately we didn’t get that with David Moyes. We never recovered from that with him.
The club gave him all the time to work and try to fix the problems but, like I said, the problem came in that week in pre-season. The manager who had build something so good had gone, the club hadn’t kept the core of the squad and invested in different players.
We were tired of reacting. It difficult to say because as a player you always have to react, but we had six or seven managers in five years. Four, five, six relegation battles then finally you get a manager who can stop all of this and take you to the next step and all of a sudden you didn’t and you’re fighting once again. It ties you up.
It was just constant change. Change the manager, change the Director of Football, change the style of play, change the core of the team, sign seven or eight new players that Moyes wanted. In the Premier League - that catches up to you.
RR: In the summer following relegation you left. Did you want to leave or did you feel forced out by Martin Bain?
VM: I was coming from four or five years of difficult and I wanted to fight for the club and be successful, but the Chairman told me that year we weren’t going to fight for promotion and it was all about just staying safe in the Championship.
I am humble, I am a hard worker and I want to win, every Sunderland fan knows this, so I am not staying at a massive club like Sunderland to just survive. Sunderland, not fighting for the play-off’s or getting back to where they belong? I can’t deal with that.
Then Martin told me about the financial problems and players needing to leave and much like Yann, Younes and Marcos - I didn’t feel the fight for the club to keep me so I thought it was the moment to move on.