WHAT would I find when I went to meet Chris Sutton back in October of 2011? I’d heard all the horror stories about him, after all. But I’ve always found it prudent never to prejudge situations…
THE reinvented Chris Sutton takes a slug of Budweiser and contemplates the past. There are ugly images in the viewfinder, but he’s equipped to confront them.
Tonight, he delivers not so much an interview as a mea culpa, exposing a tortured soul in a way that no-one, particularly his critics, might have thought possible.
But, first, the warm-up: those halcyon Celtic years. If he could turn back time, Sutton’s index finger would hit the pause button between 2000 and 2006. “I used to absolutely loved the day of the games, the build-up, the tunnel, the chanting, the music, the going against some top players, and knowing – it wasn’t arrogance – that if we played well, we’d have a chance of beating anybody.
“We had some bloody good players and a good team spirit. I’ve always liked people who aren’t afraid to say things for the betterment of the team. I’ve never minded moaning or moaners. We had a few of them. I mean, (Neil) Lennon was a massive part of it.
“Sometimes he’d get on my nerves, at other times he’d get on a lot of people’s nerves. One of his favourite ones was that he used to whip the ball in around your neck about 80mph, and he’d say: ‘Get hold of that!’ But you needed people like him.
“I liked standing in the tunnel next to Larsson and big Mjallby. Neil was a bit different, but you had to leave Henrik and Johan alone before games. You could speak to them but it was better if you didn’t. It’s not that you felt threatened, it’s just that they were serious. I liked serious.”
In truth, no man should assemble preconceptions regarding his fellow human beings. And yet I’ve been apprehensive about meeting Chris Sutton. According to some, this country boy turned footballer stands in a field surrounded by negativity. Damning stories come from those who have dealt with him and sometimes felt humiliated by him.
They say Sutton dislikes reporters and loathes giving interviews. And when he does? The more unforgiving of their number recommend a couple of Espressos just to combat sleep, the inference being he is a boor who has a capacity to bore.
Some of those misgivings are immediately vetoed, however, when we meet in a Glasgow hotel. The former Celtic striker apologises for being two minutes late. Footballers are not recognised for their social graces. Now, a shard of doubt is scything through my mind. Have I been guilty of misjudgement? We have an answer very quickly.
I hit him with a sharply-pointed question and he doesn’t recoil. A former colleague of mine has described him as “self-centred, arrogant and rude.” I ask him if he identifies himself with those adjectives.
“I can understand why people say that – I think I could have handled situations better. I think I tarred everybody with one brush and that was a mistake. But I think events dictate things. The biggest mistake I made was at Norwich when I became big headed. I courted the press and liked buying the papers and seeing my name on the back pages. I was full of it. Loved all the adulation.
“ I just wish I had thought about things more and maybe been advised that it (life) was down to me. You look at people like Sir Alex Ferguson, who does seem to have an influence on young players. That’s maybe what I needed. I came from nowhere, shot up quickly and had a big head. But the thing is you can’t have it all ways. I understand that now and I understand people’s opinions.”
Sutton is back in Scotland to publicise his new book, *Paradise and Beyond. A good book it is, too. It zips along, fuelled by regrets, self-deprecation and revelation.
He admits, for instance, that his prematurely born son James might have died if he himself had been in Glasgow rather than Valencia with Celtic. Dismissing himself as an inveterate procrastinator in matters like this, he places James’ survival solely within the competence of his wife, Sam.
On the football front, he recalls his exit from Celtic: he alleges that, when it came to the terms of a new contract, Gordon Strachan didn’t so much shift the goalposts as remove them from the stadium.
It’s not, then, the archetypal football tome. It eschews the format of pass-by-pass accounts of what occurred in matches way back when. Thus, I’m applying myself to a similar format now, concentrating on how his unflattering image was nurtured.
We go back to 1994, when Sutton was invited to join the Kenny Dalglish revolution at Blackburn Rovers. Here, he formed a profitable partnership with Alan Shearer. But was there warmth ? Did Sutton fraternise with Shearer, go drinking with him?
“No, but when I went there, Shearer had played the previous season with Mike Newell; they travelled in from Southport every day. I felt I was…I wanted Alan to like me, but he had his own group. I’ve always got on okay with him, but you play with dozens of players during your career; you’re more friendly with some than with others.
“Certainly, the comments he made when I didn’t play for England B…had he been really supportive, he wouldn’t have said them. With the England thing, he was unhelpful.”
The accolades Sutton had received at Norwich were supplanted by brickbats up in Lancashire. “Almost before I kicked a ball, people were doubting me. Two weeks earlier, I’d been the best thing since sliced bread. Now I wasn’t worth the money. I didn’t like being criticised. It was then I went into a shell with the press.”
Fortunately, on the pitch, he was encouraged to emerge from this habitat. Fifty-nine goals in five seasons took Sutton to Chelsea. The price was £10million. “By then, it was stuff like (Fernando) Torres gets. It snowballs, gets out of control and becomes pretty awful. I didn’t even like going into training. It was a chore. At the time I’d tell myself I’d not lost my confidence, but…hesitation is fatal as a striker. You have a shade of doubt about something and you’re dead.”
Gianluca Vialli was the manager who was paying the piper, but occasionally, when he called the tune, the musician rebelled. Vialli dropped Sutton for the FA Cup final against Aston Villa. Sutton reacted venomously, thrice calling his superior a coward for failing to inform him he’d been axed. Vialli cautioned that a fourth offence would earn him a whack in the mouth.
My companion shudders. “While I was at Chelsea, I felt that the whole world was against me. Maybe I shouldn’t have done. But I couldn’t wait to get out and they couldn’t wait to get rid of me. The Vialli thing is a massive, massive regret. He was a good man and I let him down. I was angry but that seems to be a theme of my life.
“It wasn’t the manager’s fault. In a perverse way, the things he taught me at Chelsea helped me when I came to Celtic. Gianluca helped me immeasurably in terms of making runs and volleying. I’m not saying I know everything – far from it – but I know how to run now. Had I know that at 18 or 19, well…”
Martin O’Neill didn’t need music to soothe the savage breast. He applied psychology. “He made me tick and I wanted to do well for him.” But there were moments when the earth shook, too, especially when he accused Dunfermline of lying down to Rangers and costing Celtic a league title.
“At Celtic, it wasn’t as if I was aloof and wouldn’t speak to people; I thought at that stage it was best not to say what I was going to do. I would talk after a game but not be overly elaborate. That was the theory. But Dunfermline…there was a lot of adrenaline. I got sent off twice in the tunnel that day. It was a disaster!
“Kenny Clarke was coming out of the referee’s room to do his warm-down and I swore at him while I was waiting to do the interview. It was a pretty expensive interview. He came back and I swore at him again. And he sent me off again. Looking back, it was a comedy sketch.”
Sutton has always had an ability to reach under the skin of others. He still remembers the day the fearsome Martin Keown blamed him for infringing the fair play rules, and allegedly costing Arsenal
a slot in Europe. Sutton was with Blackburn at the time. He talks about wanting to sort Keown out in his book. Sutton smiles and reminds you there was an exclamation mark after that particular sentence.
“That was tongue in cheek. I think, without doubt, he would have sorted me out. They actually held him back from getting in to our dressing room at me. I have to say I was actually pleased.”
And, finally, Strachan? “I thought he was funny on the telly and had an open mind on him. I hadn’t any pre-conceived ideas. I certainly didn’t have any idea of how it would be. I was upset to leave Celtic, upset at the way things unfolded.”
It’s the only time Sutton has taken anything resembling a backward step. In the book, he flays Strachan, saying: “Rightly or wrongly, I couldn’t stand him any longer. I couldn’t trust him.”
PICTURE COURTESY OF: Shaun Wong