Howard Wilkinson, watching geese with Kevin Phillips and a contract U-turn: Paul Thirlwell’s dramatic Sunderland story

It seems fitting that in a summer where Sunderland’s academy graduates have grabbed the headlines, one of their predecessors will be returning to the Stadium of Light this Saturday.

Saturday, 29th August 2020, 9:00 am

Much of the talk around the Black Cats’ production line this summer has been centred around exits - primarily those of Bali Mumba, Logan Pye and Joe Hugill, who followed the likes of Sam Greenwood, Luca Stephenson and Morten Spencer out the door.

The last week has seen some green shoots, though. The performances of Jack Diamond and Dan Neil have caught the eye and there are hopes the duo can continue to push for a place in the first-team on a regular basis.

And if they want a fine example of how well Sunderland can prepare a player for a career in the game, they need look no further than the opposition dugout this afternoon.

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Howard Wilkinson, watching geese with Kevin Phillips and a contract U-turn: Paul Thirlwell’s dramatic Sunderland story

For among Harrogate Town’s ranks will be Paul Thirwell - a graduate of the club’s famed academy and now assistant manager of the EFL’s newest side.

For seven years, Thirlwell had lived the dream. 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.

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.

“Everything just clicked and worked,” he said of his spell playing under Reid - the manager who gave him his first chance.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

Thirlwell went on to pick up a string of injuries - some minor, some not so - which thwarted his development.

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 where 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.”

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