This is the first part of a wonderfully free speaking interview with the incredibly nice Nick Barnes. This one covers all things SAFC related and gives a fascinating look at how things have changed in his stint of commenting on Sunderland since 2003. Covering Di Canio, Maja, Ross, Bendtner’s arrogance and a gruff Yorkshireman. Brilliant stuff from one of the cornerstones of local football coverage.
ALS: From a press point of view have you noticed a big difference in how the club are with you now compared to under Short and Bain?
NB: Good question, it’s different but then the level at which Sunderland are playing is different. There’s a chasm (between Premier League and League One) in terms of coverage. Just take an average pre-match press conference; Premier League you’d have three or four TV crews, you’d have a room full of journalists, and then you’d have the locals (me, local radio, local newspapers). Now it’s one or two cameras, in the same room as two newspaper journalists and just the locals so that whole relationship is different. The demands on the manager and players in the Premier League are completely remote to the demands in League One. So, we have just carried on as we have always done. I have never been denied player interviews, we still get player interviews; actually, bizarrely less now than we used to get in the Premier League but that’s because we get two games a week now. We still get manager interviews but now, certainly away from home, I might be the only one doing an interview with the manager, but that’s just League One. But it’s interesting, the players and Jack Ross are more used to dealing with the local press and talking to us a lot because that’s how they have always worked in League 2 or Scotland whereas if you’re a Sam Allardyce and you’ve been in the Premier League all the time, we’ve been blessed because if you look at Nuno Espirito at Wolves he steadfastly refuses to do all but one mass interview but we’ve been lucky at Sunderland, we’ve never had one manager refusing to do interviews.
ALS: Is that because the club is so much part of the community?
NB: I think that’s the thing, the managers have always bought into how important the local press are. There are exceptions to that, someone like Paolo Di Canio never understood that because it was all about Paolo Di Canio rather than the football club but that said he would still be walked in, sat down with us for an hour and do a 20-minute interview and then forty minutes with the local papers. That’s probably down to his perception of how important local press were and he is building a career as a manager having come from Italy and playing for Premier League clubs.
ALS: Since 2003 when you started covering Sunderland, it’s been a managerial revolving door and each new manager wanted a new team, do you think that contributed to the financial problems we had.
NB: That’s it in a nutshell pretty much and then I guess the Di Fanti and Di Canio era effectively rubber stamped that because the sheer number of those that came in with less quality and couldn’t be shifted laid the foundations for all of that. It’s extraordinary, we talked about doing your due diligence and looking at players’ character and seeing how they fit in, look at Giaccherini. Unbelievably technically talented, Italian league player; but a player his size? Suddenly you want him to do the magic in a… how would you describe a Di Canio team, it was all over the shop. Giaccherini was never going to work but you saw glimpses of what he was capable of doing but you almost had the argument that you had to build a team around Giaccherini, not put Giaccherini into a team. They didn’t know what to do with him. He didn’t speak much English and he’d been playing in Italy and suddenly it’s a freezing cold wet afternoon in the North East of England.
ALS: Did you notice any difference in what players felt they were able to talk to you about?
NB: No not really, Sunderland have been lucky in having a number of players who have been really good intelligent talkers, bizarrely predominantly foreign. I’m talking about Seb Larsson, Bolo Zenden, John Mensah, Asamoah Gyan… Nicklas Bendtner is a classic example. We were in a little room in the Academy where we used to interview the players and Nicklas came in and you know when you can’t remember the word you wanted to use? Well I was talking to Nicklas and I said, “Nicklas, you are, for want of a better word...” And I couldn’t think of the word I wanted to use and I went, “You are, for want of a better word… arrogant”. I saw Chris Young’s face drop but Nicklas just said “yes, of course, I have to be I’m a striker and I score goals, so I have to be arrogant” and he took it as a compliment. He was everything you though he was, arrogant, thought he was better than he was but to deal with he was actually a really nice bloke. He was a really good talker, very intelligent, very erudite and really good to interview. So, we had players through the seasons who were your go to players when things weren’t going well. Phil Bardsley was one of those. We lost at Portsmouth one horrible cold wet miserable night. Phil Bardsley came out and did the interviews. Compare that with when Gary Breen was here and he came to the local press in January and said he wasn’t doing any more interviews until the end of the season. We’re sitting their thinking, you’re the captain and you’re saying you’re not going to talk to us or the fans? What a stupid thing to do. Gary is actually a really decent guy and you wonder what made him make that choice.
ALS: Do you think that was under instructions?
NB: I don’t know. Mick McCarthy never had a great relationship with the press, he didn’t mind radio because you couldn’t edit it, but he had this image that everything he said was twisted by the newspapers. He was very suspicious of them. He hated giving anything away. He would argue black was white if he didn’t want you to say it. He was guarded. Having said that I can’t help but like him; he was gruff and I think it’s a Barnsley thing. Once you got below the gruff exterior, he’s a really nice bloke. I always remember we lost to Sheffield Wednesday and he turned around and said “They’re not going to sack me, what are they going to sack me for” and the story goes that Bob Murray was so sick of him saying they weren’t going to sack him that he sacked him. At the time he was basically saying what’s the point of sacking me and it became a nice story, whether or not that is true or not I don’t know.
ALS: It never worked out at Ipswich for him and now of course the man who was linked with the Ipswich job is at Sunderland
NB: Talk about sliding doors! Phil Smith and I have said to each other, what would have happened if Jack had gone to Ipswich and Paul Hurst had come here? And that wasn’t far from happening.
ALS: Last season was probably the worst season I have ever seen at Sunderland.
NB: Undoubtedly. It was dreadful. I remember at Preston Mark Chapman and Ian Dennis from 5 Live asked for an interview down the line about Sunderland and asked about Simon Grayson. I said that I thought Grayson wasn’t coping. Ian Dennis knows Simon Grayson very well and he disagreed with me, but I honestly believe he was. He didn’t have a plan on how he could deal with the problems that were at Sunderland. I think he is a very, very competent League One/Championship manager but in the same way that Chris Coleman walked in and found the problems were far, far deeper than he ever believed and the same way Jack Ross walked in during the summer and actually he has found things where he has said “Actually this wasn’t what it said on the tin;” Simon Grayson was the one that was really caught in the headlights. He had no idea how bad it was and couldn’t find a way to pull it together. My first question to Simon Grayson was “Why have you taken on this poisoned chalice” and he looked at me and said, “I think that’s a bit harsh.”
I looked at him three months down the line and said “Do you still think it’s harsh? Because you have come in for all the right reasons. It’s a massive club, massive support, massive potential; but at the minute it’s an absolute car crash.” That’s why managers take it on, that’s why Chris Coleman took it on and that’s why Jack Ross took it on. If you look at the potential of what this club could be, you take the job. It was a broken machine. Square pegs in round holes, overblown financially… it was on the road to disaster. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if the takeover hadn’t happened in the summer. It’s unquestionable they needed a takeover as radical as this because if there hadn’t been a takeover there’s even an argument to say that they could have been relegated again because the situation was so dire within the club. Even to the extent of the seat change. The initial reaction was that there are more important things to do but that was actually a masterstroke because what it turned in an instant was a shabby, broken, run down club into a club with big ambitions. All those supporters who said they weren’t coming back; if the takeover hadn’t happened and they stayed true to their word then you’re getting 13,000 in a stadium; imagine it. It would be wretched and that’s when you get into this vicious circle when players can’t deal with it.
I applaud the new guys, they may be overambitious, but you would rather have that than this guarded “we can’t have that, we don’t want to do that” thing. Just little things, even little things like the mural for instance. I mean it looks nothing like Benno, but so what, but it’s character in a soulless concrete walkthrough.
ALS: Yeah, we’ve got the lattice work out the front of the stadium; that should be inside.
NB: Yes, absolutely otherwise it’s a cold carbuncle of a stadium on a winter’s day. It’s not impossible to bring a concrete stadium to life if you’re thoughtful about how you do it and at least they are endeavouring to go down that road. You can contrast that with things previously; now you have Charlie on the phone saying, “Can you be down here in five minutes?” Ellis Short was a strange one, he wanted to do it right, he would come to all the home games. He appointed the wrong people to the wrong jobs. He watches the games still, he’s still got an interest. He is not a Mike Ashley, they are not of the same ilk. They are different types of businessmen. The debt write-off illustrates that. And when he sold the club there were reportedly people with more money, but they didn’t really get the club.
ALS: Yeah Charlie has said that, but the feelgood factor can only last so long.
NB: Yes, and next season is the acid test. There are two scenarios; either they’re in League One still and becoming that, toxic is too strong, but there is an edge to it that isn’t there this season. But if they’re in the Championship it’s “why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you spending money? Why aren’t you pushing for promotion” and then the cold reality of a club that has a budget of £18-£20m in the Championship will kick in and people will ask where’s Juan’s money, where’s this, where’s that. Either way you look at it this season is a charmed season but with a bit of fragility to it. You have seen that with recent draws and the Maja situation. It’s not a castle on sand but it is built on emotional fragility at the moment.
ALS: Which is understandable given the past few seasons with the great escapes.
NB: Which is the biggest irony when in fact the best thing to do would have been to get relegated in one of those when Ellis Short was still willing to put money into it. You ask some Sunderland fans and ask what would you rather have, play in the Championship, flirt with relegation or play in the Premier League where you’re losing most weeks? Loads of them will say “I’d rather play in the Premier League, I’d rather see Chelsea or Liverpool,” and I think well actually I’d rather be going week in and week out and watching a competitive game. Last season? To win three home games in a season where everyone was saying “Oh we’ll win games in this division” and you win three home games, no team in the Football League and Premier League, not even the worst team in the league won as few home games last season. Benno says as a player it’s difficult to get out of that game.
ALS: How do you think the rest of the season will go?
NB: I think they’ll be alright. For all the panic over the transfer window; I think they will get the players in. Jack Ross knows where the team is deficient. He knows where it doesn’t work, he knows where it does and he knows the positions where he needs to make it work. There’s enough quality in that team to kick on. You don’t get to where they are without a manager who knows what he’s doing, especially given it’s a new team. It will be tight, it will be nervy, but I have said from the start that it will be Portsmouth and Sunderland. We have missed Honeyman, he may not be the most technically gifted but his energy, his running, the way he draws players off…I thought he was exemplary at Bradford when he and Cattermole basically ran the game, seeing it out with 10 men. They will get back on track.
ALS: What’s your reaction to the Maja situation?
NB: In a word it was a mess. Looking back now it has come about because the club was in a mess a year ago and they should have been addressing things like Maja’s contract a year ago. They get caught out because Maja was never going to be their number one in the summer, it was going to be Charlie Wyke; Charlie Wyke gets injured and Maja starts scoring goals and then it’s “oh we’ve got a problem” and then he gets an agent who by all accounts hasn’t handled it particularly professionally. I think he’s got into Maja’s head and then Josh is in this horrible position where he wants to please Jack Ross, he also wants to please his agent. In the end the agent has won. Then it all comes to a head at the Man City game where his agent is telling him not do this and Jack Ross is saying he wants him to do that and then you get to this horrible situation that you can’t come back from. I think the club got itself into a position where they had to sell him or get rid of him come what may because he couldn’t stay and then if he had to stay how toxic would that have been. You’ve got to learn lessons from this situation because the last thing you want to do is back a manager into the position he has been in for the last six months. The whole nonsense about deadline day for signing was a miscalculation by the club.
ALS: In terms of signings, can we expect a statement signing albeit a League One statement?
NB: Jack Ross has been keen to say this all along which a lot of people don’t get. We are a League One club. Maguire is here because he doesn’t have the consistency to play for a better club. Oviedo is here because nobody has wanted him and he is struggling as a Premier League player to adapt to League One, O’Nien is a League 2 player who has raised his bar and is playing well. So, you have this eclectic group which Jack Ross has said have a very good team spirit; he’s said it’s now when they come back, the challenge I have set everybody is to prove you can achieve something here now this season. Go out there to prove you can do it but also put on your CV that you have achieved something.