Salut! Sunderland chats to Eric Roy, a man whose time at the Stadium of Light was, sadly, short but who is remembered with great fondness by many supporters …
See also: why Salut! Sunderland is supporting Nice
There are players who go for season after season for most their careers, giving their all for Sunderland. There are players whose magical – or maybe just full-blooded – performances, as goalstoppers, goalmakers or goalscorers, leave indelible memories.
And there are those recognised by discerning fans as oozing class but who, for any reason from persistent injury to managerial misjudgement, play so rarely that they must have something special to remain in people’s minds almost 10 years after moving on with only 27 games and a solitary goal to show for a season-and-a-half at the club.
Step forward Eric Roy, a midfielder possessing the sort of gifts only a fairly blinkered management team could fail to appreciate. The same Eric Roy who, in the post only a few days ago but nine or 10 years since he last kicked a ball for SAFC, received a request out of the blue from a Sunderland fan asking for his autograph.
Eric is back in his home city of Nice, after a career that also included spells at two of France’s top clubs, Lyon and Marseille, as manager of OGCN, better known as the Nice football club that plays in Ligue 1.
The occasionally uncommunicative communications folk at SAFC might usefully take note that within an hour of Salut! Sunderland firing off a request to Nice for an interview, back came an efficient, businesslike response with Eric’s mobile phone number, a time to call and a request that a link to the resulting article be supplied.
When I flagged up the interview at Salut! Sunderland yesterday, some of the banter concerned whether it would take place in the language of Bobby Thompson as opposed to the language of Molière. Well, the Gallic bard won hands down, not that he would necessarily have appreciated the version of his language used to pose the questions.
At first, Eric was happy to talk in English. But he quickly decided that it would work better in French, and better still if I let him finish a meeting I was interrupting and call back later.
What transpired, once he was free of both managerial duties and the need to recall his English, was a friendly, revealing chat in which Eric showed himself to be a great lover of English football, warts and all, a healthy critic of the coaching methods we employ and a man with a deep affection for the North East and the club, players and supporters with whom he became familiar.
Eric had reached high levels in France when word reached him in 1999 that Sunderland were keen on recruiting him from Marseille.
“Even before I signed my contract, I was playing for the club,” he recalls. “I turned out for the last 20 minutes of Kevin Ball’s testimonial match against Sampdoria. People were asking ‘who are you?’.”
Eric believes that when the fans found out who he was, and what he could do on the field, they warmed to him. “I got the impression the supporters liked me, and would have liked to have seen more of me – and that is exactly how I felt.”
He felt uncomfortable with the idea of stop-start access to the team sheet. English players, he says, seem to adapt better to the idea of playing one week, then being excluded for the next two or three games before playing again. “I found it difficult, and it frustrates me that the fans didn’t properly see the standard of play of which I was capable.”
Naturally, he retains fond and proud memories of the game against Chelsea in which his superb run and low pass set up the first goal, with the game barely a minute old, for Niall Quinn. As every Sunderland fan knows, we had the game wrapped up by half-time, four up with a pair each from Quinn and SuperKev. “We really showed that day what we could do,” said Eric. “But there was another game, against Liverpool, when we also played very well but unfortunately lost to two goals from Michael Owen.”
But the ways of Reid and his faithful sidekick Bobby Saxton left him bewildered. “It was a different style of play for me, always ‘straight to the head of Niall’ and ‘win the second ball’. Yes, I agree with that, but not all the time. Niall, for example, was also very good on the ground.”
He also found training sessions and meetings unstructured and disorganised, “not very scientific”.
“For me, this was all a bit difficult,” Eric said. “But then, we had a very good season, finishing sixth (Salut! Sunderland corrected him!-ed) , with Kevin scoring all those goals.”
He has kept touch with several of his old teammates, notably Niall Quinn, Mickey Gray – “who sometimes comes to Monaco” – Kevin Phillips, Gavin McCann (not Kevin: my thanks to Samwise at Ready to Go for spotting Eric’s slip, initially uncorrected by me, with the first name), Chris Makin and Tommy Sorensen.
And he took back to France happy memories of his time in the North East. It had been something of a cultural shock, watching players who had been partying late and hard turn out for training next morning and give 100 per cent as if they’d had early nights. He was surprised at how much freedom English footballers had compared to the French: “If they wanted to go out of the hotel and see a film on the eve of a game, that was fine. It wouldn’t happen in France.”
But his love of the English game survived all these eye-opening observations. “I love the English game, the passion with which footballers play, but I do think the introduction of more foreign coaches has helped instill a little more discipline without losing the passion and strength.”
How does his view of the greater discipline imposed on French teams sit with the extraordinary display of rebelliousness by Domenech’s squad in the World Cup in South Africa? “I don’t think that was so much something done in a spirit of rebellion as an act of stupidity.”
And what, getting back to why Eric is of special interest to us, of Sunderland and its surrounds? “It was great club to be at, fantastic stadium, hot-blooded fans and a lot of really good players,” he said. Life on the whole was good, too. “My wife and I had no children then, but as a couple we really enjoyed the region. My wife loved the tranquility of the countryside.”
They lived behind the Riverside cricket ground at Chester-le-Street – “no, I still don’t understand the game” – and developed a lasting admiration of our civisme. This is a great French word that translates as “good citizenship” but means a lot more in practice. My own wife, also French, thinks of the term whenever she remembers arriving in Darlington as an au pair and seeing people not only taking the evening paper from unmanned boxes but also putting the cover price into the honesty box (“we would be too crafty to do that,” she says).
Eric had two examples of his own, “We couldn’t believe it when we first moved from France. People would come knocking on the door to introduce themselves as neighbours and ask if there was anything we needed. That would never happen in France. And at pedestrian crossings, the very first car would stop to let you cross.” That, I can confirm, would also never happen in France.
In the end, a move Eric had seen as his last chance to play in the Premier League is one he recalls as a good one on many levels but, because of his lack of first team opportunities, somewhat frustrating. “I was 32 when I signed and often think I went two or three years too late in my career,” he said.
Now 42, he is happily settled back in his home town. He expects the coming season for Nice to be as tough as the last one, when he took over (having been director of football) with 11 games to go and saved the club from relegation with a great run in which they suffered only one defeat, against the champions-to-be Marseille.
At a club with a modest budget and the certainty of losing its star striker Loic Remy any day now, there is no ridiculous talk of challenging for Europe: “my ambition is essentially the same – to make sure we stay up.”
And the chant – my version corrected yesterday by Sobs to read “oooh aahh, it’s Eric Roy y’knaa”? Yes, Eric remembers it well, But he had to ask me to explain the “y’knaa” bit.
* Thanks to the “cestmoidan” Nice supporter’s blog where I found the caricature and the following description of Eric:
Très bon joueur aussi, comme presque tous les autres niçois .
No translation, I am sure, is necessary.