SUNDERLAND TILL HE DIES in conversation with football consultant & former Sunderland A.F.C footballer Martin Smith (part 1/2).

The blog has featured over 500 interviews with North East musicians, actors, writers and much more, but now for the first time, stories from professional football.

In the first part of this interview, Sunderland born Martin Smith talks about his influences, playing for his hometown and the impact Peter Reid had on his career.

I always wanted to be a footballer. My earliest memories in the ‘70s were kicking a ball about, and from my mam and dad’s bedroom I could see the Roker Park floodlights.

Even though I’m a massive Sunderland fan, a player that stood out for me was Spurs player Glenn Hoddle. When you watch him on the ’70s and ‘80s TV football shows there’s never a mark on him.

Everything looked effortless too him and back then he looked like an athlete, just a different player from everyone else, if he played now he’d be worth £200million.

His passing range was something I tried to do, and his first touch. When I was younger my dad used to say ‘your first touch is the most important touch’. It buys yourself time, and like Hoddle, who always had the ball glued to his feet.

When I was a 17 year old Sunderland apprentice he was managing Swindon and I was in charge of the tea. I knocked on the dressing room door, he opened it, I was staring open mouthed at him, he took the tea and shut the door. I was still there staring at the door.

For great players it was the goal scorers at Sunderland like Marco Gabbiadini, then following football on telly you’d see players like Maradona just going past people, doing something different.

Martin Smith then with Northampton, with Cristiano Ronaldo in an FA Cup game.

When I was at Northampton we pulled Manchester United in the FA Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo was in the team I think he was only 17. He was so quick, absolutely phenomenal. I’ve never played against anybody as good as him.

I watch him now on TV doing his tricks and think back when we played why didn’t I just kick him – but really by the time I brought my leg back he was gone.

You sit back and look at all his attributes, speed, skill, heading ability and yeah you think he’s got to be the number one player, you’ve got to have a level of arrogance to say ‘I’m the man’.

Paul Gascoigne was probably the best player in the world around 1990-91, what a player, he was unbelievable. But that tackle in the FA Cup final against Nottingham Forest done his knee and he wasn’t quite the same after that.

But he was strong as an ox and he did like a tackle did Gazza, he had that streak in him, yeah he could mix it. Plus I’d take him all day long over a Phil Foden or Jack Grealish.

Gazza liked a tackle, pictured in his Newcastle days by Evening Chronicle.

I was actually at Newcastle from the age of 10 to 14 at Benwell training ground. They used to bring Gazza in to train with us because they wanted to know where he was, and keep an eye on him. So he played on a Saturday then trained with us under 12’s on a Monday night. They probably had him in on a Tuesday with some other team (laughs).

It was a great education, but I got my senses and signed schoolboy terms with Sunderland. My first professional contract was also with Sunderland, towards my 17th birthday.

As an apprentice you were in from 8.30am to 5pm working hard and cleaning boots. But signing professional terms you didn’t have to do as many jobs, it was more about focusing 100% on football.

To get the first contract was great. But I tell the lads I’m working with now at Quantum Sports that the first one is probably the easiest to get, and now you’re in with seasoned pro’s are you going to improve ?

The second or third contract is where people are looking different at you, and starting to ask questions. Are your standards improving ? Can you positively effect games ? I was doing well at Sunderland, I’d been in England youth teams so didn’t worry too much, but now if you stand still the bloke behind you is going take your shirt.

I was at Sunderland from around 1990 and left in ’99. I was a winger, I did play the odd games up front, some managers took me on as a centre forward but thought I’d get as many goals with assists. Then later in my career I played deeper, by the time I was at Northampton I was centre midfield.

Peter Reid at Roker Park.

In the 94-95 season in Division 1 Sunderland were in a relegation battle when Peter Reid was brought in as manager. Near the end of the season we were playing Swindon who were also in trouble, a real six pointer. But I scored to keep us up and we won 1-0 at Roker Park to make us safe. I wonder if Reidy would have stayed if we went down ? I think he probably would of gone.

Pre-season was so hard you just wanted it out of the way and the league to start. But you had a belief, you’d look around the dressing room thinking we can do something this year. We got promoted to the Premiership with practically the same team, he only brought in a couple of players, Reidy really moved the club forward.

The progression of Sunderland from Roker Park to the Stadium of Light was something we couldn’t get our head around, from 14,000 to filling that 40,000 plus stadium. It took the club to a new level and the expectation changed massively.

I grew up with a comfy Roker Park, then suddenly you’ve got these big stands bearing down on you. That’s where Reidy done well, he brought in experienced players who could handle it.

The Stadium of Light.

By the time I’d left Sunderland after an away match Reidy had even stopped the beers on the coach home, so he was seeing things had to change.

All coaches and managers made big impacts on my career. With Peter Reid some fans thought I might not like him as I was getting a few runs in the team, but not as much as I had before he came. The truth is Reidy opened my eyes.

Back in the ‘70s footballers wouldn’t think twice about sinking three or four pints after the game, then go into town with the fans and have another three or four. We were brought into that culture and under previous managers football was different, it wasn’t as athletic as it became.

My first two years went so well I probably took my eyes off the ball in terms of fitness, but gradually that all changed and Reidy got me to knuckle down. He could see talent and got the best out of me.

He got us pressing the ball, a high tempo game. People talk about high press now, we were doing it back in the ‘90s, it’s just different terminology.

Truth was, at first I struggled with that so Reidy put me with a fitness coach from the North East called Steve Black, he had a great reputation, and had worked with the Lyons rugby team. I was with him a month and he changed my total outlook on fitness, it was hard work but worth it.

Maybe other managers would have let me drift whereas Reidy got more out of me. There was a big change in my mentality towards that side of the game. I was probably fitter nearer the end of my career than when I was younger.

When he first came to the club Reidy would join in training. In one of the sessions Martin Scott, Reidy’s first choice left back, gave him a shoulder nudge and he went flying into a puddle. Scotty started laughing, the gaffer said nothing. Next time Scotty got the ball it was a two footer down the shins from the gaffer.

Vinny Jones at Wimbledon said our captain Kevin Ball was the hardest player he played against – but every day I had to train with Bally and he was an animal. He had a very strong will to win and he epitomised everything Reidy instilled in us at the club.

The squad at the time was excellent, a tight camaraderie fostered by Reidy and Bobby Saxton. Now and then he would get the lads together and have a bit of a blow out, maybe take us away for weekends. A great bunch of lads with big Niall Quinn in there, yeah great times.

From the lows of battling through injuries to the highs of scoring, how today’s footballers cope with pressure, plus what Martin is doing in football now. Read part two on the next post.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  August 2021