Football: Sutton's life at the top filled with striking contrasts
Monday 19 January 1998
Chris Sutton is one of he leading goalscorers in the Premier League so far this season. He has played consistently well for Blackburn, is finding the net from all angles, and is one of the main reasons why his team are chasing hard for, at the very least, a place in Europe next season.
If, three years' ago, this scenario about the 1997-98 season had been described, few would have been surprised. We are talking, after all, about the man who broke the British transfer record back in July, 1994, when he signed for Blackburn from Norwich for pounds 5m, and who went on to construct a formidable strike force with Alan Shearer that made such a huge contribution to Blackburn winning the Premiership trophy in 1995.
Yet, if this same future picture had been painted 18 months' ago, the very thought would have been laughed at by most followers of the game. Not only was Sutton injury-ridden, but he also found himself either out of favour with the manager, Ray Harford, or playing in the centre of defence. And while he began to appear on the front pages of the newspapers, his team, the League champions, were sliding towards relegation.
"I've learnt a lot about people in the past two years," is how Sutton puts it when asked about his experiences. "I suppose I've hardened a little, and I think I understand more now about how people think. I don't know whether I was naive or not, but I'm less trusting these days, more cautious, and take fewer things for granted."
Happily married, with two young boys, a nice house in a village outside Blackburn, and a football career right back on track again, Sutton can afford to smile these days. He has an England cap to his name at last, courtesy of a substitute's appearance against Cameroon, and can happily leave the gloom of the recent past behind him.
Yet even now he finds his fall from grace difficult to understand. "I'd played every game of the championship-winning season bar suspensions but, after Ray Harford took over from Kenny Dalglish, I found myself out of the team after three games. I couldn't quite understand how changes could be made after just three games, and it came as a bit of a shock to me. Like every striker, whatever they may tell you, confidence plays a huge part in your ability to perform, and my confidence was hit."
As he acknowledges, there was not much he could do about it except get his head down. "Things went from bad to worse when I injured the tendons in my right ankle that December," Sutton recalled. "This turned out to end my season."
There were suggestions at the time that he was not as badly injured as he made out, all of which added to his lowering stock at the club. "If the nature of the injury had been known from the start, and if it had been looked after better at the time, I might have been all right," he said. "But I felt I was being pushed into a quick comeback, and every time I tried the injury set me back again."
Still, Sutton approached the start of the 1996-97 season with renewed optimism. "I had managed to get myself back to full fitness and was really looking forward to a fresh start when I injured myself in a pre-season game. I was bitterly disappointed, to say the least."
By the time he returned to match fitness, after six matches, the rot had set in. Blackburn had a disastrous start to the season which left them with four points from their first 11 games. Few would have expected such a return from such a quality side, and the fact that they managed to haul themselves away from relegation, albeit late in the day, was not far short of a miracle.
Sutton's contribution to this began inauspiciously. "Ray Harford began by putting me straight up front, which was a little strange after how I'd been treated the season before. Although the results weren't going our way, I wasn't displeased in the way I was playing."
It did not stop further experimentation, however. Sutton, who played some of his earlier career at Norwich as a central defender, found himself back in the heart of defence at Ewood Park, an unusual sight bearing in mind he had been purchased by the club because of his proven ability as a prolific striker.
How did he feel about this? "Well, I didn't exactly object to playing as a centre-half but I didn't want to play in that position long-term. It didn't do me any further good than if I hadn't played at all because neither contributed to my game as a striker. There just wasn't any continuity. Even if I'd wanted to, I couldn't exactly get hold of the ball, try and dribble past five opposing players, and then score."
Maybe, but Sutton chose Blackburn because he saw the ambition of Jack Walker and Kenny Dalglish, and he wanted to win trophies, as he did in his first season, not play in defence for a side facing relegation in the face. "That's true," he said. "But I'm not a believer in jumping ship when things aren't going well. I was despondent and pretty worried, but I wasn't exactly suicidal."
So how did he deal with all this? "I never wanted to leave, and I never slapped in a transfer request. But I wasn't satisfied either, even when we won matches, because I was just being a bit-part player. I hadn't come to Blackburn for this, I accept, but I had no other choice but to grin and bear it. I always kept faith in myself and knew, providing I was fit, I could play."
He also sought help. In some cases it never came. "Let's just say that I put my trust in a few people who let me down."
Others, though, proved to be better avenues of solace. "My family and the Professional Footballers' Association were very supportive, and it was appreciated, believe me. The PFA even used to ring me and just talk through some of my problems, which was nice."
Such phone calls are no longer necessary. Sutton began to not only find himself back up front, but also back on the scoresheet towards the end of last season when he helped to haul his club away from the drop once Harford had left Blackburn and Tony Parkes had taken over in a caretaker role.
This season, with Roy Hodgson in charge, and a new spring in the step of the Blackburn team as a result of the new manager's Continental approach, Sutton has hit the ground running. I wondered whether some good may have merged from his trials and tribulations.
"In terms of me as a player, no, not really," Sutton argued. "I know that playing in defence when I was at Norwich proved to be invaluable experience for me as a future striker, but not by the time I was at Blackburn. Filling gaps added nothing to my education.
"I've definitely improved as a player, but not because of what's happened to me. I think it's more of a natural progression. I'm 24 years old now, and I'd expect to be better at this age than when I first came to Blackburn as a 21-year-old."
So what of the future? Despite his self-belief that has helped him emerge from the dark tunnel of the last couple of years, Sutton realises he has a lot of catching up to do if he stands any chance of adding to his single international cap, let alone make it to the World Cup with the England squad.
"I'd like to think I'm up there with the Shearers and the Coles, but what I think is not as important as what the England coach thinks, is it? Right now I'm clearly behind them in the pecking order, but all I can do is what I've always done: get my head down, keep fit, work hard, and see what happens."
Having tasted international football, though, he clearly wants more. "Of course I do. It's not a burning ambition, but I'd be a bit upset if I finished my career with just one cap to my name."
If Chris Sutton carries on in the same way he has led the Blackburn line of attack this season, I would not think there is any fear of the man becoming another in the long list of England one-cap wonders.
Still, he is not wasting too much time dreaming about England. "After what I've been through I don't even expect to be in the Blackburn team each week," he said. "I know it's going well, and I'm scoring a few goals, but it's still a great relief to see I've been picked."
Really? "Yes, really," Sutton confirmed as he said his goodbyes. "Like I said, I know how easily the game can turn." So you're ready for anything, then? "that's right," he added, with a nod. "Absolutely anything."
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