A fractured skull, watching geese with Kevin Phillips and a contract U-turn: Paul Thirlwell’s dramatic Sunderland story
“It was the right time to leave.”
For seven years, Paul Thirlwell had lived the dream.
For the young midfielder, born in Washington, formed part of the Sunderland side during one of the most brilliant - and bizarre - spells in the club’s history.
The pride in his voice at representing his local side is clear throughout as he recalls a rollercoaster of a spell at the Stadium of Light.
At its best it brought promotion under Peter Reid. At its worst it saw Thirlwell sidelined through a fractured skull. And then there was Howard Wilkinson.
But the midfielder, now 40, struggles to recall any bad memories of his time with the Black Cats. Even his departure is tinged with a positive outlook.
Particularly prominent among the good recollections, though, particularly is the 1998/99 campaign during which Reid’s side romped to the second tier title.
Thirlwell, then still an ambitious youngster, was on the periphery of the squad which delivered one of the most memorable Sunderland campaigns in living memory.
“Everything just clicked and worked,” he explains.
“The style of it was great - everyone had smiles on their faces every week.
“Teams were coming up to the stadium and were almost looking for damage limitation - it was always a case of when we were going to score. When we got one, we never looked back.
“That was my first proper season. It was great times and it was one of those situations where everything just went your way.”
Just as Thirwell was starting to make a mark on the first-team though, Reid’s reign was to come to an end.
In came Howard Wilkinson who - while his spell on Wearside has gone down in infamy - proved a key influence on the midfielder’s career.
“Him and Steve Cotterill came in, and I don’t know, but I think it was supposed to be a case of Howard steadying the ship and then Steve taking over.
“Whether that was true or not, I don’t know, but that’s what everyone was saying.
“If you’re at the bottom of the league it either goes one way or the other, and unfortunately he couldn’t get us out of it.
“But it wasn’t through a lack of effort, and Steve Cotterill was a good coach.
“For whatever reason it didn’t work - but I liked Howard.
“He had quite a dry sense of humour. He can come across as a bit dour, but day-to-day I found it quite humorous.”
Equally humorous were some of Wilkinson’s training methods - which included watching DVDs of geese flying in formation and using rugby balls in sessions.
“We were doing some quite strange things in training,” admitted Thirlwell.
“I think Kevin Phillips has spoken about it before.
“There was a lot of visualization techniques and he was probably a bit ahead of his time in terms of the ideas - but they were a bit foreign to us.
“You kind of got the logic behind what he was saying, but when you’re a young lad and you’re looking around the room and you see everybody thinking ‘what’s happening here?’... it was a bit bizarre.
“I don’t think we’d have been watching videos of geese under Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton, would we?”
Wilkinson’s departure came with a tinge of disappointment for Thirlwell who had begun to make his mark on the team.
And despite being a relative youngster in an experienced side, injuries saw the captain’s armband headed his way.
For a young Thirlwell it was a proud moment - not that he had much time to come to terms with the honour.
“It was half one, before the Millwall game, which was the first home game of the season after the relegation, “ explained the midfielder.
“I just got told. I think Bally had an influence in it. We’d lost at Forest in the first game of the season where Jase [McAteer] was captain, but he got injured.
“I hadn’t really thought about it that much and I didn’t really have time to think about it because the game was close.
“It was disappointing to lose but we actually played well, and I thought I played well that day.
“But we were just in that rut of losing games.
“I loved it. I’ve always had a good head on my shoulders and it wasn’t something that made me panic, or anything like that.
“I was just proud that I had the chance to wear it.
“It coincided with probably the best football I played. I felt I had some good individual games,“ he continued.
I felt I was in my best form, but then there was that day against Reading.
“We were winning 2-0 but I had to come off halfway through the second half because I pulled my calf.
“That was probably one of the big disappointments I look back on.
“I was playing so well. We’d started winning and the team then carried on winning.
“By the time I came back, it made it difficult to get that regular place again.”
That quickly became a recurring trend. Thirlwell picked up a string of injuries - some minor, some not so - which thwarted his development.
“I had the calf injuries, probably two or three of them.
“I was coming back from one of them and then got the skull fracture in a reserve game at Everton.
“It finished me off for the season and I wasn’t allowed to play again for however long it was.”
Ultimately, it was little surprise when Sunderland - then managed by Mick McCarthy - opted to release the midfielder.
But that decision only tells part of a contract saga, which saw an offer submitted before both parties saw a change of heart.
“There was a lot said,” admits Thirlwell.
“At first I was going to sign a contract, but then I spoke to Mick again and he said he thought it was time for a change.
“It was quite mutual really, because I was coming to the point were I was thinking if I really wanted to push and get a new deal or move on.
“I thought it was the right call, because possibly had he offered me another deal I probably would have signed it.
“It might not have been the right thing to do, but just because it’s Sunderland and it’s your club…
“I thought it was time to try something new, because it had been a long time at one club.
“It was the right time to leave.”