Q&A with former Sunderland & Leeds United Striker Michael Bridges
Ashley Calver caught up with Michael Bridges to ask a few questions about his playing days and his current career in punditry.
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You starting your career at Sunderland with the youth set-up but how did you first get involved there?
I was playing football for my school team Monkseaton High and a scout from Sunderland named Jack Hixon (who also spotted Alan Shearer) was watching the match. I scored 5 goals and impressed Jack, so he asked my parents if he could take me to Sunderland for a trial. Having been released from Newcastle Utd’s school of excellence by John Carver under the Kevin Keegan regime, I was delighted to get another chance to prove myself and earn a contract with a professional club.
As I was doing a 2 year GNVQ course at school, we agreed that I could do a 2 week trial and call it work experience which would go towards my school course work. After only 2 training sessions with Sunderland they asked me if I would sign on as a YTS and become a youth team player, so I must have impressed Rick Spragia the youth team manager and Peter Reid the 1st team manager.
I was delighted but did not want to waste all my school work studies I had done over the last 7 months, so the club and school agreed that I could be released once a week to study and the rest of the week I would be training with Sunderland full-time. After only 7 months of playing for Sunderland’s youth team and reserves aged 16, I was moved into the 1st team set up and traveled with the team, not long after that I was offered my 1st professional contract.
Of course you were a part of the exciting Leeds team, a young group at the time, how good was it to be part of what some would call the best team to watch in the history of the Premiership?
This was a great time to move to Leeds Utd as the club were buying the best young players from around England (Danny Mills, Michael Duberry, Darren Huckerby) to mix with the players that had come through their Youth set up (Kewell, Woodgate, Smith, Harte, McPhail, Robinson). We all just seemed to gel together instantly on and off the field and that showed by the way the Leeds team was playing. We were not afraid of any team and could not stop winning matches and the goals just seemed to keep coming for myself. We were traveling all around Europe for the UEFA matches which were a 1st for me but I loved every minute as you got to test yourself against the best clubs in the world. We were all like brothers and always looked out for each other off the field and this helped us perform on the field.
The team played with a fast flowing style of football and caught teams out on the counter attack due to our pace and quality plus moments of brilliance from Kewell. We topped the Premiership table at Christmas after beating Derby and you would think we had won the league that night as we partied so hard. A young group of players who had all dreamed of winning the Prem and we were top at Xmas. Maybe we did get a little carried away and in the end that was our down fall as we could not beat Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool that season.
Tragedy also struck that season when we played Galatasaray in Istanbul for the Semi-final of the UEFA cup. We were preparing for the match the night before and we heard there had been a lot of fighting between fans in the city and sadly Kevin Speight and Chris Loftus (2 fans that followed the Leeds team everywhere) had been stabbed and killed. When we heard the news we were all devastated and did not want to play the match and asked for it to be called off. But the game had to go ahead. All the players heads were not right as their deaths were bigger than football. Obviously we went on to lose the match and we also lost several other matches when we returned and I think this was due to the mental state of the players and the shock we all felt when we lost Kevin and Chris.
You had a short loan spell at Newcastle too, how did you find your reception from the Toon Army after your history with Sunderland?
My loan spell came about thanks to Sir Bobby Robson. I was available as Leeds needed to clear out the squad due to financial problems so Bobby asked for my services. The Newcastle fans did not give me any stick as they knew I was from the North East and had a connection with Alan Shearer through our Mentor Jack Hixon.
Towards the end of your playing days in England there were a few injuries, how hard was it for you getting through those sometimes as the seemed to halt your career temporarily?
I had a lot of injuries throughout my career, one of which I was told I would never play football ever again but thankfully I listened to my Physio Dave Hancock and not the Doctor/Surgeon as Dave got me back playing again after 14 long hard months of rehabilitation. I knew I would never play in top flight football again, as I had lost my pace and power off the mark but I still knew I could do a job as I had a very good footballing brain and did not just rely on my pace. Injuries did however give me the hunger to play again after being out for so long. I became mentally and physically stronger which has helped me play football late into my 30’s.
Out to Australia now, how did that move happen? And did it take much persuading to get you to move?
I had a 10 match stint with Sydney FC when I was on loan from Hull City. While I was there I really enjoyed the football as I could see the game developing at all levels and the lifestyle was amazing due to all the kids activities and the sunshine so I knew one day I would return to play or to help in other areas of the game (coaching, media etc). So the Sydney FC manager moved to Newcastle Jets. Branko Culina asked Harry Kewell if I would be interested in signing for the Newcastle Jets in the A-League for the whole season. Of course I said yes straight away as I knew I could perform in this league and play regular, plus it would be a great place to retire and the rest is history as I have now been here 6 years with my family and we have become full-time citizens.
You announced your retirement but then made a comeback and are now with Lambton FC is that right? Were injuries behind the initial retirement and what made you start playing again?
I retired from professional football as I knew the time was right and wanted to start my coaching development. The body had taking so many knock backs after 20 pre seasons and I knew my body could not take the training schedule every single day. During my time living in Newcastle, Australia I became very friendly with the Lambton Jaffas set up as I had a few friends who were involved in the running of the semi pro club. They had taken the club from the lower 2nd division to top the 1st division champions in 3 years. So the opportunity came up to train and coach 2 nights a week and play a match on the weekends for the Lambton Jaffas so I did, and we only recently got knocked out of the Semi finals.
A lot of players either go down the coaching route or TV route when playing is coming to an end. I see you do some bits for different TV stations, is this something you have always enjoyed? And is coaching also a possibility for you?
A lot of players go into these areas of the game once their playing days are over because of the knowledge we gain by training and playing every day of our lives so it becomes 2nd nature to want to spread that knowledge onto others either by coaching or by talking on TV. I have recently been finishing off my A-License coaching course and really enjoyed my time as the Newcastle Jets Youth and Assistant coach. But I felt like I needed to take some time away from the day-to-day running of a football club and spend more time with my family and see my kids grow up. So I now work for several Networks in Australia on the weekends which involves talking about the EPL and A-League matches and this also allows me to spend time with my family during the week and finish off my coaching Licence studies.