Paul McMillan* has lots going from him. He’s a smashing lad – Monsieur Salut and he once worked together in Abu Dhabi – and comes from Washington. His wife Georgia, though an Aussie, supports Sunderland and once told on these pages the story, a mixture of joy, tragedy and love, of how she and Paul got together. We even covered the wedding, at a distance. But Paul is a Mag, black and white through and through. He returns to Salut! Sunderland for the first time in almost seven years for a look at Sunday’s derby, at the respective woes of both clubs and the prospects for Sunderland survival under Big Sam …
Salut! Sunderland: Great win for you on Sunday but a grim start for both of us what on earth is wrong with North-Eastern football, at least that played by our two clubs?
Paul McMillan: Where do you start? I think it’s the classic mix of expectation with no regard to reality. The fans’ passion can’t disguise the fact both have had to deal with boardroom shambles, failed signings and the managerial merry-go-round. Meanwhile other clubs we’d expect to be competing against (such as Stoke, Swansea and Leicester) are making strides.
We now have your ex-manager Big Sam in charge. Some wag, when I invited ideas for the generic name to give his post-match emails, wittily offered Allarbyes. Will he save us?
A West Ham fan I know thinks not. However, his record says he is a survivor. If he does keep you up it won’t be pretty. Whatever facts and figures he feeds into his supercomputer always seems to spit out: “Be defensive”, “Lump it”, “Big man” and “Sign Kevin Nolan”.
And what about your lot? Probably a toss-up on who has the worse team, though you did well at Old Trafford, at home to Chelsea and vs Norwich, but where does the blame lie for the decline of NUFC?
Two words: Mike Ashley. Since he took over it’s been a race to the bottom. I’m not sure anyone believed his “Road to Damascus” interview at the end of last season, as seen by the amount of empty seats against Norwich. The ground looks like one of his stores, cheap, and much of the squad has a bargain basement feel. I think Alex Ferguson used to ask about a player’s attitude before signing him. We seem to ask: Is he cheap? Is he under 25? What’s the resale likely to be?
I imagine Mike Ashley featured somewhere in the last answer (now how did I work that out – Ed?]. Can you recall a more depressing for you, uplifting for us ownership set-up at St James’ Park?
Having worked at the Chronicle during Freddy Shepherd’s reign, I have to say he was good entertainment value, even if we did rack up about £130million in debt. He wasted a fortune allegedly overruling Souness to sign Michael Owen instead of Nicolas Anelka and there was the whole “Toongate” scandal. However, the next worst after Ashley is probably Gordon McKeag, who brought on the whole “Sack The Board” chant. He had the pleasure – or misfortune – to be president of the Football League when we won promotion under Keegan. I’ll never forget the vitriol from some fans as he was presenting the league trophy on the pitch.
And who are the players you have who can turn the Newcastle season – assuming you feel Steve McClaren is equipped to lead them up the table?
After Sunday you’d have to say Georginio Wijnaldum, but he needs to keep scoring. Mitrovic if he can stop taking early baths and Sissoko if he can find form. However, most of our problems are at the back. A lot will depend on how well Rob Elliot can deputise for Tim Krul – or we may be in the market for a new keeper come Christmas.
You must have seen some tasty players in black and white over the years. Who were the greatest in your view?
Obviously big names like Shearer, Keegan and Beardsley are up there. Also Shola (just for his derby day goals). I always liked watching David Batty. He was never blessed with silky skills but gave defenders behind him the confidence we’re lacked so much for a long time.
And who should never have been allowed near SJP?
We’ve signed plenty of “pedigree” players who turned out to be dross. Marcelino (out for ages with a finger injury), Hugo Viana (too sluggish), Albert Luque (injury prone), Jean-Alain Boumsong (an £8m gaffe-prone defender) and Stephane Guivarc’h (just awful). However, the worst has to be the Fumaca. He was known as the only Brazilian unable to play football – and that was before last summer’s World Cup. He came on as a sub and was substituted himself during the same match. Colo’s got nothing to worry about.
Personal highs and lows as a supporter?
Sadly predictable high – the whole 95/96 “Entertainers” season (even when the wheels fell off). I’ve never seen the like before and the chances of it returning are remote. Since Ashley took over the lows have outweighed the highs. I’d say relegation in 08/09. It snuffed out any hope that Newcastle have a right to belong in the Premier League.
Do you have particular memories of any of the others who have served both clubs? Stokoe, Moncur, Bracewell, Jeff Clarke, Lee Clark and Allardyce spring to mind and there’ll be prominent names I’ve overlooked.
The “ginger Pirlo” Colback will be getting a lot of attention on Sunday but the player that sticks out for me the most is Bracewell. He is the only one I saw play who is still thought of highly on both sides of the Tyne-Wear divide. Lee Clark has a nice T-shirt collection, so I’m told.
It ranges from harmless banter – Mackems laughing at “Geordie nation” arrogance, Mags sneering at Sad Mackem Bastards – to sheer venom, but what do you make of the tribal divide?
I grew up in Washington where the loyalties are split 50/50. Arguments can get heated but I haven’t seen as much of that as both clubs’ fortunes have slumped. The only exception is Derby Day, which everyone hates. No one wants to lose and, given the six points we’ve gifted in past seasons has kept Sunderland up, this season’s fixtures are even more of a fight for survival.
And what are your honest thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city?
I honestly try not to think about them. Most of the rivalry comes from the so-called Black Cats. The Glass Centre’s nice.
Give us this season’s top four in order.
And the bottom three with positions for SAFC and NUFC if not doomed
Newcastle to be 17th (16th if Sunderland stay up)
Villa (or Sunderland)
Is it time to give up on diving and the rest of the cheating that mars the modern game and just accept it as something players are now taught to do? Or do you have a radical plan for stamping it out?
Anyone caught diving by a TV ref must come out at half-time in the next fixture and do an Olympic-style floor dance complete with leotard and ribbons. Fines will be reduced for artistic interpretation.
One step the FA or clubs should take to improve the lot of the ordinary supporter?
Compulsory £20 ticket prices for away fans, limit change kits and improve fit-and-proper person tests for chairmen.
How will you follow this, the first big NE derby of the season, and what will be the score?
I’ll be watching from home before making the trek to work for a late shift – so celebrations will be muted or hopes crushed silently. It’ll be nervy but I back us to break the hoodoo 2-1.
* Paul McMillan on himself:
I’m a journalist who worked in the North East, Middle East and now London. I went to my first match at St James’ Park in 1982. My father says he took me to my first match when I was three, although I have to take his word for it as I have no recollection of that. My earliest memories of watching Newcastle revolve around being crushed in the ‘family enclosure’ while catching glimpses of Keegan, Waddle and Beardsley (usually just their legs). At half time I would retrieve soggy bags of crisps that were thrown into the stands. Occasionally I would be thrown in the air when we scored. Very occasionally. I would continue to support Newcastle, despite being asked by Mackem schoolmates to go to reserve games with them. It was part pride, part being able to wind a lot of people up that kept me black and white through the lean years. After serving an apprenticeship in the Gallowgate corner, I would stand behind the old scoreboard. Later I would have a share in a season ticket for the seats above the Gallowgate goal.
Interview: Colin Randall