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Roker Rewind: 41 years ago today, Gary Rowell slayed the mags - interview w/ a Sunderland legend

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Today marks the 41st anniversary of Gary Rowell’s hattrick for the Lads against Newcastle at St James Park. We revisit an interview with the Sunderland legend, who talks all about his time playing for the club he loves.

Sunderland AFC

RR: Hi Gary. Thanks for the opportunity to have a chat about your career. First off, you made your debut at a very young age...

GR: Yeah, I made my debut in 1975/76. I was 18. When you’re 16, 17, you’re looking to make your breakthrough. The funny thing was I made my debut when I was 18, but it took me a while to nail down a spot.

That tends to be the case. Tony Towers was the captain of the team at the time and I was his understudy; that’s how it worked. If he didn’t play because of injury or suspension or whatever, I would.

It took me a good 6-9 months to get into the side, playing week after week.

RR: Your debut was under Stokoe and you played alongside the Cup heroes. What kind of experience was that, for a teenager coming through?

GR: That was great. I was always a Sunderland fan and I went to the ‘73 cup final with my mates. So, Bobby Kerr, Jim Montgomery, Billy Hughes, they were all still around and I felt it was an honour to be in the team with these guys.

Only a few years earlier, I’d be watching them win the cup!

Porterfield was still around, and he scored the winning goal on my debut.

Being a Sunderland fan, making my debut at 18 and still having some of the cup team around made it even more special. Even now, these guys are massive heroes for me.

Gary Rowell was brought into the Sunderland team which still contained many of the 1973 FA Cup Winners
Image: Ryehillfootball.co.uk

RR: Your big break came under Jimmy Adamson, of course.

GR: Jimmy Adamson was a new manager and wanted to put his stamp on the team. He liked to bring the youngsters through – he always had faith in young players.

So, three of us came through – me, Kevin Arnott and Shaun Elliott.

It was quite a young team; Joe Bolton was only a couple of years older than us.

It was Jimmy who put me in the team and said ‘look, barring injury, you’re a first-teamer now’, which was great. He was a great at giving confidence to young players and a brilliant coach as well.

RR: Despite the poor start, things turned and we almost stayed up.

GR: Yeah, Jimmy came in, but game after game, we were hitting the bar. I remember hitting the bar three games in a row and we were getting no luck. But we always felt it would turn. And it did turn. It turned massively!

We started winning by four and six and we knew we were on the right track.

Ultimately, we went down on the last game of the season. I’m still not quite sure how we went down, but we’d had such a bad start to the season that we needed a lot of points just to get level with other teams.

In the end, it was possibly one game too far, but I still think we were really unlucky to go down that season.

RR: Perhaps we would have, but for events at Coventry?

GR: It’s the sort of thing that’ll never happen again. Now all teams kick off at the same time on the last day of the season, so there can be no skulduggery and nothing can be manufactured.

We didn’t know anything about it until the next day. And even then, well, the story’s got bigger and bigger and we know what happened now, but at the time we didn’t have a clue.

We just heard that Coventry and Bristol City had drawn. It wasn’t until the next day that we heard that Bristol City had drawn level and so the last fifteen minutes – well, there’s still no footage of it or anything. It was just bizarre.

Young fans nowadays would wonder how on earth that kind of thing could happen, but it did. Even all these years later, it rankles a bit, but there you go.

Coventry players celebrate a goal during the Coventry City v Bristol City game, 19th May 1977
Image: Bristol Post

RR: Presumably, having come so close to staying up, Jimmy wanted immediate promotion the following season?

GR: Yeah, we expected to go straight back up.

I thought we were good enough to go up automatically, but under Jimmy we finished sixth. There were no play-offs then, of course, but nowadays that’d be enough. Of course, then it was top two or nothing.

RR: Billy Elliott replaced Jimmy during the following season. We finished fourth, and Billy had one of the best win ratios of any Sunderland manager. Yet Ken Knighton became the new manager in June 1979. What happened there?

GR: Billy was never given the full title; he was the caretaker after Jimmy left, or in charge until the end of the season anyway. He was never given a two or three-year contract. It was always going to be reviewed at the end of the season.

Billy had been a key member of the backroom staff when the club won the cup, but now, of course Ken Knighton, was on the staff too. He was coach – and a good coach - and he threw his hat into the ring for the manager’s job and got it.

RR: Billy was gaffer during that game against Newcastle, in February 1979. A special one for you….

GR: I think there are certain games that define you and that was one of those.

Playing against Newcastle is an experience, it really is. It’s everything and more that you’d expect. You know, to do battle with the old enemy is great, pulling the shirt on, and that kind of thing, but to do well in a derby - it’s just stuff that you dream about, really.

Sunderland-Newcastle has always been a brilliant derby. Not one for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure! You’ve got to be up for it. If it goes your way, it can be the best game ever; but it can also be the worst, depending on the result.

That day everything went for us. We got the result, I did well personally and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was just fantastic!

RR: There is a reported conversation between you and Kevin Arnott that debated whether you settle for four or continue to take the p*ss – any truth in that one?

GR: I think that might have been embellished a bit over the years! It sounds more like Kevin than me!

It’s the sort of thing that we might have done…. When you’re 4-1 up with ten minutes to go, you look the opposition in the eyes and you just know they want to get off the pitch and you’re just loving it.

You don’t get that kind of feeling often, you know. Usually derby games are tight, but 4-1 up was a great position to be in.

RR: Talking of Kevin Arnott, I used to love watching him - just how good was he to play alongside?

GR: He was great. He wasn’t dead quick or had blinding pace or even the best engine, but he had such vision. Technically he was ahead of his time. He was such a great technical player and such great vision. He’s right up there with the best passers – not many could see the passes he made. He was a really good player.

We had a good side, though. Clarkie and Shaun [Elliott] at the back were too good for that division. They were a real, what would now be premier league, defenders. Joe Bolton was just Joe – a real character. And Wayne Entwistle was great to play alongside.

He’d take the physical side, he was a big and strong lad and he would put himself about.

RR: Throughout your career, it’s probably fair to say you played a variety of roles. What do you think was your best position?

GR: When I first got into the team, I was central midfield, as Tony Towers’ understudy. Then, when Jimmy Adamson came, I played wide left of a four in midfield and that’s where I nailed down. I loved that position.

Then I played like a number ten role, just behind a couple of strikers. Then I went back into midfield, and then I had a couple of seasons as a striker.

But, do you know what, if I pulled that shirt on, I was quite happy!

I still think of myself as an attacking midfield player, though. That’s what I liked doing. Jimmy Adamson always encouraged me to get into the box; even from wide positions, I had to get into the box at least half a dozen times each half. And he said if you get in there often enough, the ball will fall to you and you’ll get chances.

Gary Rowell has been immortalised by Dave Wright in his Caricatures series
Image: dw-caricatures.com

RR: You were the post-war record goal-scorer, before a certain Kevin Phillips rocked up. You scored an outstanding 102 goals during your Sunderland career. That’s some achievement!

GR: Yeah, again, it’s something I’m proud of. And I did it for the club I wanted to play for.

RR: So, after Jimmy and, all-to-briefly, Billy, you played under Ken Knighton and then Alan Durban. What were they like, as managers?

GR: Every manager is different. I liked it under Knighton, but I was injured a lot when he was manager. I had a season where I did my knee and it took me a good season to get back again. But I liked Ken personally and he was a good bloke.

Alan Durban was very pragmatic. He loved the team to be organised and defensively strong. It was difficult playing in a Durban team as a forward, but I had a lot of respect for Alan. He should never have been sacked, in my opinion – I don’t think he should have gone when he did.

Alan Durban loved nothing more than a 1-0 win, especially if the team didn’t play well. He’d feel like the team had dug a win out. He was that sort of manager. He’d rather you win 1-0 than 6-5. Because, at 6-5, too many things have gone wrong.

He was meticulous, very, very organised, and he’d get the team ready so everyone knew their job. You knew what you had to do under Durban. He was a fella I liked.

The thing about Durban was he only ever managed Sunderland in the top division, so his stats might not be as high as some others who perhaps managed in the second division, but we got some terrific results under him. I remember we went to Anfield, when very few teams went to Anfield and won, and we won under Durban. We won at Arsenal and some other good wins.

I thought it was a bit harsh when he got sacked.

RR: Who, would you suggest, was your best gaffer?

GR: Personally, Jimmy Adamson. He put me in and kept me in, so maybes I’m a bit biased in that.

Bob Stokoe was a legend – we called him the messiah as fans – but I didn’t really work under him that much, but I was pleased I got my debut under the guy who has a statue outside the ground!

Jimmy Adamson gave Rowell his big break as a teenager at Sunderland
PA Images via Getty Images

RR: What was a typical day’s training like for you guys?

GR: Under Jimmy, training was geared to attacking football. He liked you to get forward. Under Durban it was more pragmatic and everyone had to give 100%. Adamson would let you express yourself a bit more. Ken was like that too.

RR: You mentioned the knee injury, when Ken was manager. Did that injury have a big impact on your career?

GR: No, I don’t think so. I probably came back too early. I played the first game of the following season when I shouldn’t have. But I wanted to play. Sometimes you’re your own worst enemy. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t ready, but it was a tough year and I missed a lot of football, being in the treatment room.

I did play in some games that year, like Newcastle. That was the game I really wanted to play in. And we beat them at home. Stan Cummins scored. Beating Newcastle is something I wanted to be part of and I was determined to be fit for that one! Another great experience, in front of our own fans, that I’ll never forget.

Problem that year was I was never fit. I’d start, then miss a few games and come back on the bench, so although I got the stats, I didn’t start that many games that year. Probably only started a dozen in the year we got promoted.

But the next season I got back, with a full pre-season. I always say if you don’t get a full pre-season, you’re going to struggle. So that year I worked hard and came back a bit earlier so I’d be ready and felt much, much better. I knew had to be up and running early, given the previous season. It’s a tough time, but you have got to do it and when it’s over and you got through it, you feel great.

RR: In terms of your Sunderland career, Alan Durban was replaced with Len Ashurst and he let you go. I remember being absolutely gutted when you left. Was that a tough time for you?

GR: I’m not a person who looks backwards, but Len, like any manager, wants to put his own stamp on the team. Under Len, I was one of the people he wanted out, for whatever reason. I didn’t want to go, obviously, but it happened.

But, I deal with whatever is in front of me and I had a spell at Sunderland that I couldn’t dream of being any better. I was ten years a Sunderland player, at a club I loved, and I loved every minute of it.

Even when I was injured I just looked at it and thought ‘I’m doing the best job in the world and there’s thousands of kids who’d want to do this…’, so you’ve always got to put things into perspective.

Norwich Manager Ken Brown unveils new signings Gary Rowell and Steve Bruce in the summer of 1984
Image: Eastern Daily Press

RR: The most bizarre thing happened the year you left. Sunderland made it to the Milk Cup Final, only to play your new team, Norwich City, at Wembley! How did you feel about that one?

GR: Well, I initially did at Norwich what I did at Sunderland – I did the same knee during pre-season whilst we in Scandinavia. I had to fly home on my own and had an operation. It’s a nightmare, as a new player who wanted to make an impression. I came back March time. For 6 months, no-one had seen me play. But you couldn’t have made it up – Sunderland against Norwich at Wembley!

And I was desperate to be involved. But there was only one sub in those days and the manager, Ken Brown, said, ‘if we get an injury in the first five minutes, can you play at Wembley for 85 minutes?’. I think I’d only started one game before the final, so of course I wasn’t ready.

But what happened at the end, when I was walking round, was something else though. You know, our fans are absolutely fantastic! I’ve got no words to describe them. Just brilliant! I’ll never, ever forget that reception at Wembley. I was so proud. And I was so proud of our fans.

I’m still so proud of our fans, and how many we’re taking to away games in the third tier of English football. 5,000 going to a televised game earlier in the season? Who does that?

For Sunderland it’s happened all the time, from my time onwards. It’s just totally amazing. Not many clubs have that.

RR: Even now, thirty-odd years on, we’re still singing your song! How does that make you feel?

GR: It’s great! People ask you for autographs and sing about you – half of them never saw me play! When you get to 60/61, it’s amazing.

We do it for Quinn, Phillips, Monty, Charlie Hurley – we haven’t been a successful team, but we latch on to the players who they can identify with, who love the club and aren’t afraid to say so.

I think Sunderland fans remember you forever. I think the fans love Bally, for example, as he gave everything. That’s what I hope they feel about me.