Date of birth: 5 March 1988
Place of birth: Downpatrick
In which team and what year/s did you play?
I played twice for County Down at Under 14 level. First time was back in 2002. I was captain the year after that – in 2003. I have also played 3 times for Northern Ireland at the Milk Cup.
What club side were you playing for when you were selected?
I was playing for St Andrews boys club
How did you do at the trials?
I remember my very first trial for County Down, at the council pitch in Killyleagh. I was a year young, and I knew that it was a massive chance for me. I had an absolute torrid game. Afterwards, my granda (being his usual critical self), came up to me and said he thought that I had blown it. But lucky enough, Ronnie Cromie and Bobbie Reid invited me back for another trial and I performed well thereafter. The year after that, I was involved with the Northern Ireland Under-15’s, so I didn’t actually attend the County trials.
How did the team fare in the tournament?
In our first year we were desperately unlucky. We got to the quarter-finals of the main event and ended up getting beaten by Botafogo on penalties. The lads were gutted. We went on to finish 8th that year. In my second year, we had a smashing team, but just didn’t produce the results.
What memories do you have of the Milk Cup and the north coast?
I have a lot of fond memories, on and off the pitch. I remember playing against Japan in my first year. I had the game of my life. We got bombarded for the entire match, but fortunately everything seemed to be hitting me and I was loving it. We ended up losing 2-0. When the game finished, our manager Bobbie Reid approached my mum and dad and I remember him telling them that they should be very proud of me. That was a great feeling. I also remember one fantastic experience in my second year. It was the 21st anniversary of the competition, and all the county teams got to play their games at a neutral venue within their county. We played at Banbridge Town’s ground against a South American team called Atlas. We drew 2-2 and it was just a great day all round. Off the pitch there have been some great times as well. We stayed in the same hotel as the Brazilians which was a great experience. Just watching the way they conducted themselves around the hotel, as a young lad it was good to learn from teams like that.
Do you remember who you roomed with?
First time around, I roomed with Barry Walsh, another Killyleagh lad. And in my second Year I shared with Chris Casement who is at Ipswich.
Describe your footballing journey after the Milk Cup to the present day…
Wow, how long have u got. Put it like this, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for County Down, and the Milk Cup. Just two days after playing in the Milk Cup for the second time, I was on a plane going to Manchester United for a two-week trial. After that it was just go. I remember sitting down with my granda and my dad, and he had a list of 15 or 16 clubs inviting me for trials. Being a young lad I really wanted to go to all of them. I remember hardly being off planes for that period, going to various clubs – it really took a lot out of me. Ultimately, it came down to a few make or break trials. Sunderland was one of those, and I came here, did particularly well in the trial and the offered me a contract. I was delighted to sign it. I have had a really good time at the Stadium of Light. I’ve improved a lot as a player and as a person. I have another year-and-a-half left on my contract, which will take me up to 21 (a very crucial time in every young lads career). This year and next are massive for me.
How did it feel to captain Northern Ireland in the Elite Section of the Milk Cup in 2007?
That was a very proud moment. I remember looking over and seeing my mum in tears, that’s when I got a little tingle up my spine and realised how much of an achievement it was.
Greatest achievement in football to date?
Being on the bench at West Ham when we won promotion to the Premiership. It was a Friday night game on Sky Sports, and we beat them 2-1 at Upton Park. I can’t explain the feeling in the changing room afterwards. As a 16 year-old it was all quite hard to take in. Also getting to the final of the Milk Cup last year with Northern Ireland was fantastic. The buzz the day before and on the day of the game itself was unreal. Unfortunately, we were tortured by an exceptionally talented Israel.
Who’s the best player you have played with?
I have played with a few very good players at Sunderland and with Northern Ireland. I have been on Roy Keane’s team a few times in training, so if that counts then it has to be him (even though it’s a little scary at times). Ha. I played with Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke in a reserve team game this year – both of whom I consider to be legends of the game. The best young player I have played with is Jonny Evans. He’s a future Northern Ireland captain I’m sure.
I played against Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United the day after he signed – great defender. Steven Reid was fantastic when we played against Blackburn. But there are two young players I’ve played against in my time with Northern Ireland and they really stood out. I came up against Spain’s Cesc Fabregas when I was 17 and u could just tell he was going to be world class. Last year in the Milk Cup final, we were up against a lad called Maor Buzaglo. Just a few months after that final, he made his debut for the full Israeli squad against Russia. I wasn’t one bit surprised.
What advice would you give to those representing County Down at the Milk Cup?
Just go and give it your best shot, and enjoy. It’s a fantastic experience, and you’re being watched by scouts from teams you didn’t even know existed. Represent your county the best you can, but most importantly represent yourself and your family to the best of your ability. Get your head down, work hard, and you will reap the rewards.
How much of an impact did the competition have on you?
As I said before, I wouldn’t be at Sunderland and playing for the Northern Ireland Under 21’s if it wasn’t for the Milk Cup. It’s a great tournament, with so many scouts watching, and I will personally never forget being involved in it.
I watched you playing under our Head Coach Ronnie Cromie for Killyleagh Boys Under 12’s? How much do you remember about those days?
Everything!!! The good old days I call them. I remember training down at the council pitch every Friday. When Saturday arrived, my granda picked me up outside the local shops. Then it was off to Dunleath Park. We won a few trophies under Ronnie. I will never forget beating Downpatrick Celtic 2-1 in the cup final. Earlier in the season they had beaten us 9-0, and then 3-1. When it came to the final, everyone was expecting them to roll us over. But we beat them and it was great. That same morning, I had played for Killyleagh Under 10’s (under ‘Chicken’ Sharvin), and we lost 4-1 to Castlewellan. I remember running from pitch 3 over to pitch 4 (crying). Obviously fortunes improved when we won the Under 12 final. Amazing times they were. Ronnie was and still is a fantastic man. I remember the morning I had to go up and tell him that I was signing for St Andrews. I hope he has forgiven me for it now. Ha.
You joined Sunderland AFC in 2004. Tell us what a day at the Stadium of Light is like?
My average day has changed very much from what it was when I first moved over as a scholar. As a scholar you had to come in at 8.30am. We then cleaned the pro’s boots, and did college work etc. Some days you would get into the training grounds when it was dark and when you left it was dark. Those were long days, but worthwhile. Nowadays it’s much different. I get into the training ground at about 9.15am, get changed and have some breakfast. Around 10.00am I go into the gym, have a little stretch to loosen up before training starts at 10.30am. We finish training no later than half-past 12, then back in, get some lunch at the training ground, then maybe few games of head tennis after and a few weights in the gym. Then I go back to my apartment. I go for a sleep after training every day without fail. Wake up, play on the PS3, watch TV. Occasionally I go out for a meal with the lads, or go to the pictures. So quite boring really.
What’s your favourite ground to play at and why?
I love playing at the Stadium of Light. I’ve played there a few times and always done well. It just has that feel about it. Its great.
And your least favourite?
For some reason its the Ballymena Showgrounds. I always have a bad game on that ground!!!!
We would love to see you displace Craig Gordon as Sunderland No 1. What are the chances?
Craig is a world-class goalkeeper and yet he is only 24. I feel I am learning each day in training, getting better and better. Of course, my aim is to be first choice at Sunderland. I’m aware that will take a lot of hard work. Roy Keane has showed it doesn’t matter how old you are by throwing a few young lads in, so that gives me hope. He has involved me in a few of his squads. I’m only 19, which is relatively young for a keeper, and I think I may have to go out on loan and get some league experience to progress here. That would really help my game. I certainly have belief in myself, and I believe I have what it takes to play in the Premiership. It’s nice to see that when Craig (Gordon) does an interview, he always give me a mention as well as the other competition (Martin Fulop and Darren Ward). Little things like that give me huge confidence, and hopefully one day I can fulfil my dream of being Sunderland‘s number one.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself we don’t already know?
I am a handy outfield player as well – just ask Ronnie Cromie. In fact, I played 5 or 6 games outfield for the youth team since I’ve been over here. One of them was in a massive derby game against Newcastle.
Describe your Milk Cup experience in one word…
Former County Down Milk Cup PRO Barry Greene spoke to Trevor Carson in March 2008.