AFTER more than 25 years working for the paper, GRAEME ANDERSON is leaving the Sunderland Echo to go freelance from the new season.
Here he looks back on his time as the Echo’s football writer in the first of a three-part series, continuing tomorrow and Monday.
WHEN I took over from Geoff Storey in 1996, I became only the fourth Sunderland sports writer in the history of the Echo.
The first, Captain Jack Anderson, the original Argus, worked with just three Sunderland managers.
Jack’s successor, Billy Butterfield, the second Argus, worked with nine over the course of more than quarter-of-a-century before retiring in 1979.
Geoff took the record, working with 12 Roker Park bosses while I have covered the club over the stewardships of nine permanent managers – Peter Reid, Howard Wilkinson, Mick McCarthy, Niall Quinn, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet – as well as three caretakers, in Kevin Ball, Ricky Sbragia and Eric Black.
The longest-serving of those bosses, by some distance, was the first on the list: Peter Reid.
And when I look back on my time at the Echo and the club, it is the Reid era that remains perhaps the most vivid in my memory for a whole variety of reasons – one of which is how it contrasts so much with how things are less than two decades later.
Football and journalism on Wearside in the mid-90s was a world away from today – Sunderland were still at Roker Park, Manchester City at Maine Road, Arsenal at Highbury.
And compared to now, the internet and to some extent Sky TV, were in their infancy as far as football and the media were concerned.
At a time when skipper Steve Bruce was leaving Old Trafford and young dribbler Connor Wickham was joining a creche, mobile phones had just come down from brick size and the Echo still published half-a-dozen editions daily from Pennywell – although news from Sunderland Press conferences had to be relayed via a payphone outside the Roker Park banqueting suite; a stack of 10p pieces an essential tool of the job.
One measure of how things have changed is that when Peter Reid first arrived, he attended a Press conference EVERY MORNING for the Echo and Chronicle as had his predecessors.
In the modern era, Press conferences are once a week at most Premier League clubs, and sometimes not even that.
Reid was a magnetic personality and he galvanised Sunderland, first of all saving the club from relegation to the Third Division at the nub end of the 1994-95 campaign, then winning the First Division title and Manager of the Year award as he earned Sunderland promotion to the Premier League the following season.
Chairman Bob Murray gave Reid his head (if not the money!), and the Liverpudlian went on to build several successful and memorable sides.
He liked to work hard and to play hard – something I personally identified with at the time.
And he also ran a very open training ground for the media, an approach which allowed him to generate a sense of interest, unity and goodwill across the community.
Unpredictability was the essence of his management style, with both the Press and his players and you never completely knew where you stood with him.
He could be ferocious one minute, incredibly friendly the next, and you never quite knew which Peter Reid you were going to get.
For a young sports writer, it made for a daily tale of the unexpected which was testing, scary, challenging and exciting all at the same time.
You might turn up for the usual Press conference at the Charlie Hurley Centre and find a time-pressed gaffer giving you an interview in the shower rather than his office – concentrate on your notebook!
One morning, during a desperately quiet close season, I rang him to see if there was anything that might make us a back page.
“Well, I’ve just this moment put Michael Bridges, Allan Johnston and Lee Clark on the transfer list,” he snapped back. “Stick THAT exclusive on your back page!” and then hung up, leaving me dumbfounded and wondering whether I’d just been handed the hottest Sunderland story of the summer, or whether I’d been had.
It was not uncommon for him to fire a newsline out of left-field.
I remember once he beamed over his cup of tea: “I’ve got one for you, lad – a new signing”
“Burnt Arse? Burnt Arse!” I said.
Again, not sure whether I was being wound up or given an exclusive story, I explained: “Peter, I can’t put: ‘Burnt Arse signs for Sunderland’’ on the back of the Echo. “I just can’t.”
“Well, look, I can’t tell you the exact spelling,” he grumbled, losing interest. “You’ll have to look it up.”
That evening the Echo announced the signing of an Austrian Under-21 right-back from Grasshoppers Zurich: Bernt Haas.
Inevitably, with Reid being such a dictatorial no-nonsense, old-school football manager, he made enemies and he made them quickly. Not afraid to make changes from the off, only youth team coach Ricky Sbragia survived the cull of backroom staff.
He was a flinty, sometimes frightening character. Always the boss. Never someone to take for granted.
And even though we got on well, I was told I wasn’t wecome at the training ground on several occasions.
Those were tough moments for a reporter with a lot of acreage to fill, although every time there was a ban the relationship seemed to emerge stronger once peace was declared.
Still, my heart used to sink when I heard the worst 10-word sentence of my working life, usually on a Monday when the phone rang from his secretary Tracey, always with the same opening: “Hi Graeme, it’s Tracey here. I’ve got Peter for you….”
Whatever it might be, you knew the Sunderland manager was unlikely to be ringing to compliment you on a finely-observed match report!
In the end, I think the number of enemies eventually did for him, both inside the club and outside.
Slaughtered on a regular basis on a nightly radio talk-in show which I felt increasingly had an agenda, the mood became unsettled on the terraces.
Inside the club, there were pressures too, and he was sacked after an indifferent but not disastrous start to the 2002-03 season: Sunderland were fourth bottom at the time.
He was a proud man and it hurt him badly, particularly, having driven past the fledgling Academy as it took shape, to realise that he would never take charge there.
After he left, Sunderland collapsed like a pack of cards. The Black Cats had eight points from nine games when he was sacked in October. They had 19 points in 38 games when the season ended in May.
I know that, looking back, Reid himself wonders whether he should have left sooner – jumped before he was pushed.
I may be in the minority, but I felt at the time it would have been a more interesting and wiser course of action to see if he could survive the turbulence and inspire Sunderland to rise again.
It was an ignominious end to the manager’s Sunderland career, but it had been some roller-coaster while it lasted.