In the first part of our exclusive interview with the lovely Trevor Sinclair, we cover Jimmy, Robbie, Aaron and why he always tried to be the chewing gum that held everything together.
To start at the beginning. You had just been released by Manchester City in the summer of 2007 and were looking for one more inspiring challenge. Having already met with and turned down Tony Pulis’ Stoke, how did Dave Jones sell you the challenge of playing for Cardiff? I understand he wooed you at Celtic Manor!
I didn’t need much convincing. When I had a meeting with Tony Pulis, he just didn’t stimulate me. I’m not sure if he was completely on board with the idea of bringing me in on relatively big wages either. It was just one of them when we realised it wasn’t going to work. My agent then had a call from Dave Jones and like you say, he met me down at Celtic Manor and I thought what a lovely place this is!
We went down and saw the ground. We saw the training facilities, which weren’t great. I think he was trying to hide them from me! He also showed me The Vale, where the boys train now and that was very impressive. He said that was where they were trying to move there asap. Dave was chilled and he knew what qualities I could bring to the team. I just got on really well with him, even when he released me! I should dislike him now because I was a few games from triggering a clause in my contract that would have entitled me to another year.
I wouldn’t have taken it anyway because if you remember, I had two operations that year, the fourth and fifth on my left knee. I had already swallowed that bitter pill when you realise that the game has got the better of you. Around Christmas time, after the second operation, I was recovering and I had just been for a two-week intensive course with a doctor from China, where he was doing cupping treatments to try and get rid of the blood clots and get the circulation back in my knee.
I woke up one night, I couldn’t sleep and we had just had a house built in Dubai. I said to my wife that I was going to give that season everything, but it would be my last year. I was walking away very grateful having enjoyed 19 years as a professional, with two years at Lillishall prior to that, so I see that as 21 years in a professional football environment, very thankful for what the game has given me.
What were your first impressions of Ninian Park? They were building the new stadium at the time, but people still pine for the old stadium. It was a bit of a shit hole, but it could be like a 12th man.
I loved the stadium and I loved the city. The stadium had a lot of heritage and history. You could see there were different sections, where fans had been going for generations. There was that camaraderie and they were superb fans, getting behind us, especially away. They were barmy! I remember we went to Bristol once and it was carnage on the side of the motorways. They were passionate fans and I thoroughly enjoyed my time down in Wales.
We were based in St Nicholas in the Vale of Glamorgan, 10 or 15 minutes away from the stadium, but the contrast was incredible. We were next to Nicky Piper the boxer and his family. We’re still friends with them now. We were quite isolated, but we felt very safe and secure next to Nicky! We moved to Dubai about two months after I retired and got the kids in school there, but when we considered coming back to the UK, Cardiff was an option because we had such a lovely time there and met so many good friends.
The fans were also brilliant and so welcoming. The players were outstanding and some of them went on to become iconic. There was a good core of great lads and I just blended with them straight away. The city was vibrant and growing. I knew I had made the right call and I loved the Welsh people. They had a lot of pride and there was no animosity with me being a former England international. I felt really valued and respected throughout the club.
I get the impression that you’ve always taken football very seriously and that your professionalism has reflected that. I know you had problems with your knee that season, but did you still play more than you were expecting to?
I’m really determined and I’ve got a lot of self-belief. Having so much experience in the game, I believed I could stay fit and have a real impact. My mum had died the February before I joined Cardiff and that was one of the reasons why I had so much desire to continue because I knew her spirit lived on in me and that would be something she would want me to do. There was a bit of emotion in there and I was determined to do well.
I thought I would certainly reach that clause to trigger another year, even though I wouldn’t have taken that because my health after football was really important to me. I had a young family and I wanted to be able to enjoy them running around. The players that the club were signing, like Robbie and Jimmy, plus the quality they already had; Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley, Stephen McPhail, Kev McNaughton, Tommo, although I think he was just there for the team spirit! It was a brilliant group of players.
Cardiff had sold Michael Chopra that summer and effectively spent the proceeds on the salaries of yourself, Robbie Fowler and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. I remember a League Cup game early on at West Brom where all of you scored in a 4-2 win and everything just clicked, but that unfortunately rarely happened because the three of you were rarely available at the same time.
Expectations were sky high for Robbie Fowler in particular, but I remember seeing him in pre-season and he was really blowing and there were games when he appeared to be on another wavelength with his flicks and dummys. Having played with him before at Manchester City and on international duty, why do you think it didn’t quite happen for him?
Robbie was huffing and puffing in the England Under-21’s with me! He never changed, but he had a God-given talent and he knew where the back of the net was. I think his hip problems were tough for him and he never really got back to the level he would have liked, but it was not for the want of trying. Robbie has gone into management, has got an academy similar to mine and we’re pretty much rivals. He was phenomenal when he was young and when he had that debilitating injury, I think he put a brave face on and joked through it, but he was desperate to get back to where he was.
I know you’re a player that takes the time to help team-mates and nurture young players, which is very admirable and impressive, but in such a competitive field, I wonder if that is an all too rare quality? Have you found that to be the case and why was that so important to you?
It can be. The players that tend to do that are the players that you feel could make the step up to coaching and management. Its not all about you, it’s a team game. You hear kids talk about it now when they’re playing FIFA, that you’ve got to get that chemistry and it’s the same in real life. I was always one of those people that tried to be like the chewing gum that held everyone together. If you can be that kind of player that helps blend everything together, then you’re an asset to the club. I took a lot of pride in being able to get on with everyone and be a social butterfly.
You worked with two very impressive young players during your time at the club in Aaron Ramsey and briefly, Kasper Schmeichel, who have both gone on to have sterling careers. Having witnessed the rise of the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Frank Lampard first-hand, could you tell that they were going to become great players, or is it sometimes too early or difficult to tell?
I don’t think it is. They all have the same kind of drive and humbleness about them. Cockiness in some respects, but down to earth personalities. They have a certain work ethic and a determination to succeed. I think you could see it with all the players you’ve mentioned. Kasper had that and so did Aaron. Even Joe, who was an absolute joker, they all wanted to impress in training and on a match day. It’s a trait you see with all the top youngsters coming through.
I’m proud to see how well Aaron has done. I remember him breaking his leg at Stoke when he was with Arsenal and I gave it a couple of weeks, then I gave him a call. As soon as he answered, I knew he was going to make a full recovery because he was so upbeat and asking about Dubai. I did not have a worry in my mind and it was a privilege playing with him when he was coming through. I’m really proud to see not just the player, but also the person he has become.