The Big Interview: Chris Sutton on club career, controversy and England B

In Depth

Chris Sutton discusses life at Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and Celtic, plus that corner against Arsenal and refusing an England B call-up.

We’re often told that England’s glory days game in black and white, with a brief sparkle when Bobby Robson jigged and tears rolled down the cheeks of Paul Gascoigne, but the golden age of English strikers surely came in the mid-90s.

Between 1994-95 and 1997-98, 11 different Englishmen in four seasons scored more than 15 Premier League goals. By way of comparison, since 2011 only five have managed that feat: Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Charlie Austin, Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney.

Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham, Matt Le Tissier; the list goes on and on. Each of those 11 was capped by England, despite the competition for places, but only one failed to gain more than a single cap. The forgotten man was Chris Sutton.

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Sutton started out at Norwich City having moved to Norfolk as a child from Nottinghamshire, joining as a trainee. He broke into the team at 18 and was almost immediately thrust into stardom.

Norwich competed for the first Premier League title, finishing third and only falling away in March and April. That brought famous European nights to Carrow Road, and regular goals for Sutton, who by now was gaining attention from high-profile clubs.

“Norwich was a good place for me to serve my apprenticeship,” Sutton told us, speaking to help launch new fantasy football game Fantasfida. “I did two years there as a YTS, and it was a club which had a reputation similar to West Ham of developing young players and giving them an opportunity. But I went into a team at 18 years old full of good, experienced players.

“In the 1992-93 season we could have won the Premier League. We finished third, but we had a chance. We played Manchester United over Easter, and I know it’s all ifs and buts, but we ended up losing that game 3-1 to a really good United team who went on to win it.

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“We had a genuine chance, but at the time I don’t think we really believed we’d get over the line. But they were great times which carried onto the next season with European football and that famous win over Bayern Munich, Jeremy Goss, a Norwich legend, and his goal in the Olympic Stadium.”

Sutton scored eight times in 1992-93, but it was the following season that his career really took off. While Norwich’s fortunes suffered, a 20-year-old Sutton scored 25 league goals, beaten only by Cole at Newcastle and Shearer at Blackburn Rovers. While Norwich won only two league games after New Year’s Day, Sutton was in demand.

“The reason I moved on was because of a few issues at the time because of the success Norwich had had in a relatively short space of time,” he says.

“Mike Walker was the manager and moved on, which was a big part (of why I moved). I liked Mike, he was my reserve team manager, and it just felt like the club were lacking a bit of ambition.

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“But even bigger than Mike leaving really was when the club let Ruel Fox go to Newcastle. Ruel was a mate, which didn’t help, but that was when you thought ‘we’re not going to be as strong’.”

Manchester United, Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers were all rumoured to be interested in Sutton at that time, and I wonder whether he was aware of the interest. The cliche is that players focus on their performances and let the rest take care of itself, but surely it isn’t that easy?

“Let’s get it right, we all get tapped up, we all pretend we don’t, and there was a lot of interest from a lot of clubs,” Sutton says. “I ended up going to Blackburn even though the chairman Robert Chase had said earlier that season that if he sold me he wouldn’t be at the club. Remarkably he changed his mind when the big money came in!”

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Sutton’s choice was surprising to many, but it became a masterstroke. Blackburn owner Jack Walker was building a team capable of winning the Premier League title, and partnering Sutton with Alan Shearer under manager Kenny Dalglish became the backbone of their triumph.

Sutton would play a supporting role for Shearer, scoring 15 times in the league, but that was a mature position for a 21-year-old.

“Kenny Dalglish was an integral part in me going to Blackburn Rovers, a side that had been pushing for the title in the previous season.

“Blackburn at that time had been the big spenders. Shearer had gone in I think a season or two earlier and had been superbly prolific in the 93-94 season, and the chance to play with Alan was a big thing.

“But as a young man that grew up watching Kenny Dalglish, the chance to play for Kenny was massive. I spoke to him on the phone for the best part of an hour, and to be honest I couldn’t understand a word he said, but I still ended up signing for them.”

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One story often retold about Sutton’s time at Blackburn concerns a controversy against Arsenal in the 1996-97 season, when Patrick Vieira kicked the ball out so the injured Stephen Hughes could receive treatment.

Angered by what he perceived to be time-wasting, Sutton pressured Nigel Winterburn after he received the throw-in and won a corner from which Blackburn scored. Arsenal would miss out on the Champions League on goal difference.

“From my point of view, that was a time when if someone went down injured you kicked the ball back to them,” Sutton says. “But I think there was a little bit of gamesmanship, I think Patrick Vieira had sit down.

“So we’d kicked the ball out, but we were 1-0 down and desperate to get back into it. We felt he was time-wasting – and when I say ‘we’, most of my team-mates afterwards were shaking their heads and pretending that was really poor what I’d done, but they were the ones telling me to do it.

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“There was a throw-in over Nigel Winterburn, he was faffing around by the corner flag trying to keep it in, then it went out and all hell broke loose among the players. But Arsenal still had to defend the corner. It was Garry Flitcroft who scored with a brilliant finish, a half volley into the top corner.

“I think there were four minutes of injury time, and I played those four minutes right by the tunnel at Highbury on the left wing. As soon as the whistle went, all the threats I was getting I was straight up the tunnel. I wasn’t the quickest player, but I can assure you I was pretty rapid that day!

“I think Keown and a couple of other Arsenal players were trying to get in the dressing room after me, but they’d have done well because I’d locked myself in the toilet with my feet up against the door so they had to get through a few doors to get to me.”

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When Sutton finally left Blackburn in 1999, it was for a big money move to Chelsea. Manchester United had again made enquiries about a striker now aged 26, but Chelsea paid the £10million asking price.

It was a move that Sutton admits started badly and did not improve, although he blames nobody but himself for the disappointment. He concedes that his missed chances made him an unpopular figure with supporters, and ultimately led to his sale after a single season.

“I went into a team with the likes of Zola, Desailly, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, and a really good manager in [Gianluca] Vialli, so I don’t blame anyone else,” he says. “I started poorly, I missed chances, I lost confidence, and I feel I let Vialli down. I thought he was a really good man, and I don’t think spending £10million on me that season really helped his managerial career.”

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“At the time I was telling myself I hadn’t lost confidence, there was an element of delusion, but I think I was hesitant and that’s the one thing you can’t be as a striker at that level.

“I didn’t score enough goals. Some of my all-round play was OK, but I’d gone there for big money and you’re judged. That’s absolutely fair, I didn’t do well, and I think Ken Bates was glad to see the back of my after one season.”

Failure at Chelsea brought a new opportunity, however, and breathed new life into Sutton’s career. It was Celtic who paid £6million for Sutton in July 2000, allowing him to link up with Henrik Larsson. He would stay for six years, scoring 86 goals.

“He had a similar mentality to Shearer,” Sutton says of Larsson. “He had really tough mental strength, wasn’t frightened to miss, was ruthless, but a real team player as well and an all-round footballer. We saw that in the 2006 Champions League final when he came on for Barcelona and changed the game.

“He was a real footballer. He could drop deep, could link up, could play off the sides, could play up top by himself. He was superb in the air and really unselfish. I had a terrific relationship with Henrik. He was brilliant for me and a joy to play with.

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After the Stamford Bridge disappointment, Sutton is far happier discussing his time at Celtic. This was about regaining his love for the game.

“I had the best five years of my career at Celtic,” Sutton says. “A big part of that was Martin O’Neill, but the chance to play with Henrik Larsson was enormous, a bit like going to Blackburn with Alan Shearer.

“After the disappointment at Chelsea it was a big thing of trying to enjoy my football again. I coasted through a lot of my younger years in that I expected things to be a natural progression and everything to be plain sailing. It took for that shock at Chelsea for me to sober up if you like and really realise how lucky I was to be a footballer at a great club like Celtic.”

Having retired after brief spells with Birmingham City and Aston Villa, won league titles in two countries, played in the UEFA Cup final and played in the Champions League, Sutton would be forgiven for having no regrets. Yet there is still one nagging issue.

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One of the most notorious stories about him concerns his England career, or lack of it.

Having been given 11 minutes of a friendly against Cameroon, Glenn Hoddle demoted Sutton to the England ‘B’ team to face Chile ‘B’.

Feeling let down by his manager, Sutton pulled out. It would be the death of his international career.

“It was yet another mistake. I was picked for the game against Cameroon, and I was really delighted to get on and get my first taste of international football,” Sutton says.

“Then in the next couple of months before the Chile game I did alright. My form was good, and I think there were injuries.

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“I wasn’t deluded, that was the time of Sheringham, Shearer, Andy Cole, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand, there was Stan Collymore…Michael Owen had come on the scene, there was a lot of competition.

“But I felt I’d had my opportunity and played well so I thought I’d definitely be in the squad again. I thought I might start to be honest, and then Glenn Hoddle put me in the B squad.

“To say I was angry would be an understatement. I thought I reacted in the right way at the time, but then I used to think I reacted in the right way about a lot of things! It wasn’t right what I did, and Glenn Hoddle was quite right to put me away.

“I phoned him up and said I wasn’t going to play for the B team, and he said I’d never play for England again. And you have to say he was right!”

Chris is working with Fantasfida, a new daily fantasy football game from Milan-based Digital Bros. It’s one of the only online football games where you can play a range of Championship tournaments, both on a daily and weekly basis, all fast and on the ball, designed to put your football skills to the test –

By Daniel Storey

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