George Honeyman opens up on his Sunderland journey and the Jack Ross presentation that gave him hope for this season's revival

"Don't mention it to Bally but that was a long time ago really, wasn't it?"

By Phil Smith
Thursday, 23 May, 2019, 17:04
George Honeyman celebrates Sunderland's win over Portsmouth at the Stadium of Light

George Honeyman is reflecting on 1998.

Clive Mendonca, Michael Gray, 4-4 and all that.

That game has understandably dominated discussion outside of the club this week but for a new generation of players, it holds little resonance.

Honeyman was three at the time.

It is not something that has been mentioned behind the scenes, either by the squad or staff.

Still, someone so rooted in the club, an academy player from the age of ten, cannot help but recognise the opportunity.

"History is there to be rewritten," he says.

Above all else, Sunday represents a chance for Honeyman, wearing the armband, to play his part in a new and exhilarating chapter for the club.

It has been a successful season for the 24-year-old, who has been able to match the thrill of playing for his boyhood club with good results and a sense of a club moving in the right direction.

Sunday will define this campaign, but the club has travelled a long way from this time a year ago, when Honeyman showed maturity beyond his years in a scathing interview with the club website.

“That goes right through the club, for too many it has been a gravy train, nice stadium, great facilities, they think it’ll be a nice, easy place to play," he said.

"People need to understand that it isn’t easy, you can’t just come here and win games because it’s Sunderland. That needs to change.”

Few would say that it hasn't.

Honeyman has been at the heart of that.

After such a wretched season the midfielder headed for Colombia. He came back and much remained uncertain, but new manager Jack Ross saw much that he liked and Honeyman took the armband.

Slowly but surely, that pain of last season has started to subside. Not just for Honeyman but everyone associated with the club.

Few at Sunderland feel the pulse and the mood of the region more keenly. Last year it was a burden, this year it has been a thrill.

"Last year was bittersweet in terms of, I really enjoyed the start because I was playing again," he said.

"But then the last six months, I then started thinking of myself as one of the more experienced players after January, it weighed a lot on me.

"To go through that in my first full season was tough.

"It was something that, when all was said and done in the summer, I said I never wanted to experience again.

"I don’t think I’ll go through many tougher seasons than last year.

"Your first full season, to be called the worst team in the club’s history, it really hits you, it’s raw.

"It gives you big motivation to go and be successful this year and ultimately if we can do that, I and everyone else at the club can be really proud.

"You go out and walk the dogs and there’s Sunderland fans speaking to you about the game," he added.

"It’s everywhere because everyone is involved.

"Everyone takes an interest, it affects their day-to-day lives.

"I love that responsibility, knowing you have an affect.

"At the same time, when things are going wrong there’s no hiding place and it can be a pretty rough place to be.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

"I think last year is something that can only make you stronger.

"I know what it’s about and I know how good it can be if we get it right here.

"[A game like this] It’s exciting because we know how big it is, it’s what you want to be involved in all the time.

"There’s a lot of people coming down for me, friends and family.

"It’s always nice to feel that support from them and from other people.

"It’s nice everyone wants you to do so well."

It has not always been a straightforward journey to Wembley, and this shot at promotion is one that Honeyman would have taken in those uncertain months at the start of the summer.

"You start pre-season and get beat by Darlington, if someone offers you the play-off final you snap their hand off," he said.

"We come back for pre-season and there’s eight players turn up.

"The transformation in the last 11 months, the club, the squad, and now the chance to go and get promoted.

"It’s a very positive place and so it should be."

Still, Honeyman had seen enough from Ross that this would not be another season of disappointment.

The midfielder can recall the moment that he began to feel that, for all the uncertainty, the Black Cats were on to something, as he had urged them to be in that emotional interview months preview.

"There was a meeting in Portugal," he said.

"The manager got us together on that pre-season trip and did a powerpoint.

"It was the first time he really collected us together as a group and laid out his goals and ambitions.

"The way he spoke and the way his staff spoke was really something that we felt everyone would enjoy being part of, something that finally felt like we could get going in the right way.

He’s been massive for the club since he came in and no one should underestimate the job that he has done.

"I’m really happy how we’ve sort of went hand in hand with me and the club," he added.

"I’ve played coming up to 50-odd games in a season for Sunderland.

"That’s something that I’ll always really be proud of.

"I think I’m on eight goals, my target is double figures so I’m a little bit shy of that, but if we go and get promoted I won’t be caring about that at all.

"If we go and get promoted I think it’s been a fantastically successful season for both me and the club.

Sunday is the chance to take a significant step back towards where the club should be.

And what of the suggestion that going up through the play-offs, if you can get over the line, is the best way to do it anyway?

"I don’t think it’ll be good for anyone’s blood pressure like!" he jokes.

"But the joy will be through the roof."

That's for sure.