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Interview: ‘Red & White Tractor’ John Kay spills the beans on his time as a Sunderland player!

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Fighting Newcastle fans, rowing off the pitch with a broken leg and leaving his mark on Leeds United - literally. One of Sunderland’s biggest cult heroes, John Kay, talks to Roker Report about his time as a player on Wearside.

Sunderland AFC

RR: Good afternoon John, thanks for chatting with Roker Report first and foremost. Nice easy one to begin with - who was your best mate at Sunderland, and why?

JK: I had a few to be honest, I couldn’t pick just one.

Bally. I’d class Bally as one of my best mates there definitely. Great lad. Gary Bennett was a really good lad too. I was really good mates with a lad called Micky Heathcote if you remember him. Gordon Armstrong was another fella I knew and got on with well. There was loads.

I roomed with Timmy (Tim Carter) for a while. He was a brilliant.

RR: Is it true he used to kiss people when he had a couple?

JK: (laughs) Who? Timmy? He was some character he was.

To be honest, I was really good mates with about four or five of the lads. We had a really good set of people and huge characters.

Bally and Benno were my best two mates if I had to choose.

Don Goodman and Anton Rogan were good lads too.

He’s done alright for himself Don mind, hasn’t he?

Sunderland-Newcastle 1993
Kaysie enjoyed a tackle, didn’t he?

RR: Aye, commentator on Sky Sports! Long gone are the times of him and Bally allegedly getting into battles on Christmas nights out in Newcastle!

JK: I remember that, do you mean with the bouncers up in Newcastle? All Newcastle fans them. Him and Bally... (laughs). Aye, I remember that. Mad that, isn’t it?

Good lad, Don Goodman.

RR: Let’s rewind back to when you first joined the club. You’d been part of The Crazy Gang at Wimbledon during the mid-80’s and Denis Smith comes in for you as Sunderland drop down to Division Three. How did Denis Smith sell Sunderland to you?

JK: Denis didn’t have to sell the club to me, I’m from Lumley and I know all about Sunderland. They’d just got relegated to Division Three.

I knew the craic with Sunderland. I had played loads of school football with Barry Venison and Mark Prudhoe and that as well when I was younger. I think I even had a trial with Sunderland when I was a kid. But you didn’t have to sell Sunderland to me at all. It’s Sunderland.

What happened was I was at Wimbledon and I think Denis Smith got in touch with Harry Bassett and then I was told of the interest in me by Denis. I’d been offered a new contract at Wimbledon but I didn’t sign it. It’s hard to remember all the little details to be honest because it’s so long ago.

I do remember getting a phone call off Denis and he told me they were able to agree a fee, but it ended up going to tribunal.

It was a good move for me though. I knew all about Sunderland and I was married, and my wife lived up in Lumley, so I was commuting all the time from Wimbledon. I was up and down from the North East.

But he didn’t have to sell the club to me at all.

He showed Bally all around the North East and that didn’t he?

RR: You were an ever present in your first season, playing all 46 games of our Division Three title winning side. There was some real characters in that team. Yourself, Eric Gates, John Macphail, Benno, Marco - how good was that season and how good was the character in the squad?

JK: We had big characters. Benno, Gabbas, Gatesy, Frank Gray. Really big characters, seasoned professionals that were far too good to be playing in that league to be fair.

A lot of it is hard to remember because we’re talking thirty years ago.

I didn’t play hardly at all the season before mind, ‘cause I done my cruciate ligaments and my menial ligaments, I was out for about six months down at Wimbledon, so it was the first time in ages I had played every week.

We had players that ended up having careers at a much higher league and they were also a good set of lads, so it helped us bounce back at the first time of asking.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Nottingham Forest v Sunderland - City Ground
John Kay combines with his mate Gordon Armstrong to stop Garry Parker from scoring for Nottingham Forest.
Photo by Steve Etherington/EMPICS via Getty Images

RR: Many Sunderland fans loved you for your ability to thunder into opposition players and wind them up. How much did you love that side of the game? Did you learn how to wind players up while part of the Crazy Gang or has that cheeky side always been in your DNA?

JK: It was part of my DNA. It was just how I was.

I mean, the Crazy Gang definitely helped! (laughs). That mentality we had at Wimbledon did help. Win at all costs - that sort of stuff. That sort of attitude was built into me anyway, but it would be fair to say it was the Crazy Gang that brought it out of me.

RR: Did Denis Smith ever try to curtail that nasty, cheeky side to you?

JK: No, he encouraged it. Absolutely.

RR: Those tackles is exactly how you earned the nickname the ‘Red and White Tractor’. A particular tackle against Peter Haddock earned you that nickname when you, and I quote Howard Wilkinson, made his leg look like “it had been ran over by a tractor”. What happened following that tackle? Did Howard say anything to you?

JK: No, he said absolutely nothing. He said absolutely nowt to me. Non of them did. Nothing happened after the game.

It still follows me about now though, ‘cause whenever I walk into a pub there’s always lads that will shout “here’s the tractor”.

It didn’t do anyone any harm did it? Just a tackle. Didn’t do me any harm either, ‘cause people still remember it.

RR: So what went through your head when you went in for the tackle? Nail him?

JK: Aye. Absolutely. Win the ball.

RR: ...and get the man?

JK: Aye. I suppose.

RR: In the years that past, did Peter Haddock ever talk to you about the tackle?

JK: Nah, he never said nothing to me.

Didn’t we go down to Elland Road for a cup game a few weeks later after that? Nothing was ever said then either. Never came up to me and said a thing. Nowt.

RR: Will always be part of the John Kay legacy though aye?

JK: Yeah! Not the worst thing to be known as is it?

RR: One of the greatest days to be a Sunderland fan was the 2-0 play-off semi final win at St. James Park against those lot. I remember you fully smashed Billy Askew and a bunch of their fans were dying to run on the pitch to have a go at you. What are your memories of that?

JK: You know Billy is a Lumley lad, I used to go and play school football with him. I had a lot of respect for Billy.

Again, it was just one of those things. It was a wet pitch and the ball just skidded off the surface and I went into the tackle.

When I saw the fans running on the pitch, I just thought “oh, for f**k sake man”.

RR: Would you have taken the Newcastle fans on?

JK: Probably aye. Yeah... in fact, absolutely. I’d get the first punch in.

RR: Wasn’t bad at all, was it?

JK: One of the best games I ever played in that. It don’t know if it’s different now, but in those days you’d see the supporters on the streets miles and miles before we go into Newcastle, throwing stuff and the bus and that. It was a laugh.

Us though, as a team, knew we were going to win it. After Paul missed the penalty and kicked Burridge, it felt like people thought Newcastle just had to turn up - but it meant all the pressure was on them.

Leading up to that game we had been playing well away from home, I think we won away at Wolves a few weeks before hand and we were confident. Our away form that season was really good and it was an extra incentive to win with Paul Hardyman being suspended.

RR: Many fans have spoken to me and fondly remember your cross for our first goal against Manchester City at Maine Road, I believe you switched to left-back that day. Have you put in many better balls than that?

JK: I can’t even remember why I was playing left back to be honest. Our normal left-back must have been injured - was it Paul (Hardyman)? It wasn’t a bad ball in though, was it?

It was a good goal and an excellent header from Marco. I don’t think I’d played left-back before that, if I had it would have only been once or twice.

To be fair, when I started out I was a midfield player, but before I went to Wimbledon I played one season at right-back for Arsenal and that became my position.

RR: Did playing in midfield help you as a full-back then?

JK: If you look at a lot of full-backs, they’ve been midfielders previously and they seem to be able to convert themselves into that position alright. I’m not sure how it came about that I reverted from central midfield to right back, but once I went there it just became my position.

I preferred right-back, absolutely.

RR: Have you ever forgiven referee Alan Flood for blowing for the full-time whistle when you were clean through on goal in the last minute of a 6-2 win over Millwall?

JK: I don’t remember that to be honest! I was so rarely that far up the pitch. If we won 6-2, that’ll do me.

RR: You played in a Sunderland side that got to Wembley twice. Both in the play-off final against Swindon and in the FA Cup final against Liverpool, although we lost both games, what is it like coming out to a sea of red and white?

JK: Well I was injured for the FA Cup final, I was injured in the league game at Brighton on the Tuesday - I did my calf, think it was about ten days before the final.

Malcolm Crosby gave me every chance to be fit, but I could hardly walk on my calf so I missed it.

It was unbelievable though seeing all that red and white at Wembley, but talking about unbelievable feelings, forget about Wembley, I used to love running out at Roker Park because the reception I got was always brilliant. I used to love running out to the fans. They are the best memories I had.

That quarter final against Chelsea was class. It was my best memory of Roker Park, it was unbelievable. Winning the third division trophy, beating the Mags and just Roker Park in general are my best memories. Moments in time.

Soccer - Barclays League Division Two - Sunderland v Newcastle United - Roker Park
Kaysie. Hummell. 90’s.
Photo by Paul Marriott/EMPICS via Getty Images

RR: Who was your toughest opponent?

JK: (Pause) Who was my toughest opponent? (pauses further).

Probably John Barnes or someone like that.

I didn’t mind playing against a fast winger or a tricky winger to be honest. They were both alright to play against, but people like Paul Simpson who played for Man City were hard to play against because it was just having one touch of the ball and you could get nowhere near them.

The fast ones and the tricky ones would always give you a chance to get at them.

RR: In your final game for Sunderland - a game I remember as a young ‘un - you got a horrendous broken leg and, as we all remember fondly, hilarious rowed yourself off the field. I spoke to Kevin Ball yesterday and he said your pain threshold was through the roof. How were you not writhing in agony?!

JK: I tried to stand up on it, but I couldn’t. I knew it was broken, because my leg was sort of just hanging there. I couldn’t walk on it.

I was a bit more concerned about them wanting to carry me off on a stretcher because I thought it would have been easier to just get some of the lads to carry me off, but they made me go off on a stretcher.

I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t really hurt when I did it, so much so I don’t remember all that much about it. They did eventually give me some gas and air, and I remember going to hospital and they put a bit of wood in my mouth because they had to try and realign my leg - imagine them doing that nowadays?!

I don’t mind pain to be honest, what bothers me most about it is that I wish they’d took me down the halfway line so I could have waved to the fans. I wish I had done that.

RR: What is John Kay doing now? I’m sure our fans would love to know what you’re up to.

JK: To be honest, I speak to people now and I just forget about the football stuff, I forget I played football in all honestly. Just try to keep myself to myself.

I did a bit of youth work when I finished football and I loved it.

I work for a housing group now and I work for the home stay service, but a lot of my work with them involves mental health and things like that. I really enjoy it and have done it for a few years now.