Call him what you like, but Black Cats love Barry Green

He was wrongly named and blamed during West Ham's fall, but his career was reborn in Sunderland. Tim Rich speaks to Gary Breen
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The Independent Online

As County Durham rolled past, as Seaham became Peterlee and the signs for Sedgefield began to appear, the small, bitter voice of Joe Kinnear came on the radio. The voice blamed his demise as manager of Nottingham Forest on the club's internet chatrooms, on the former players who hosted radio phone-ins and the destructive vitriol poured forth every fortnight from the Trent End. He did not, of course, mention that he had won four of his 23 games.

As County Durham rolled past, as Seaham became Peterlee and the signs for Sedgefield began to appear, the small, bitter voice of Joe Kinnear came on the radio. The voice blamed his demise as manager of Nottingham Forest on the club's internet chatrooms, on the former players who hosted radio phone-ins and the destructive vitriol poured forth every fortnight from the Trent End. He did not, of course, mention that he had won four of his 23 games.

Up at Sunderland they do dislike in the same way they do love; absolutely. Of the Ireland squad Mick McCarthy took to Japan in 2002, Kevin Kilbane used to regard matches at the Stadium of Light with an empty dread while his team-mate, Niall Quinn, was nakedly idolised.

In Japan, Gary Breen was between clubs. He had left Coventry, where they sang songs about him, for West Ham. He would be returning to London, to a club which had finished seventh in the Premiership and were managed by Glenn Roeder, with whom he had played at Gillingham. He talked of tasting European football at Upton Park. A year later, he left after a reported falling-out with Roeder and more abuse than any man has the right to expect. One supporter wrote a book, called The Legacy of Barry Green - he had misheard the name of the defender bought in to plug the chasm left by Rio Ferdinand. Breen was blamed for just about everything that was wrong with Roeder's regime. It is also why I was told Breen would not talk about West Ham under any circumstances.

On Wearside, the legacy of Gary Breen is eight goals conceded in 17 games - two of them maddeningly against West Ham - and the best-drilled defence in the Championship. As he was at Coventry, he is secure in the supporters' affections.

"When I came here to be shown round, I was made aware that their pride had been dreadfully hurt by relegation," he said. "We don't claim to be the greatest team in the world but I think there is an understanding among us that we live in an area where people's lives are made better if Sunderland are doing well. You want to be supported by people like that. They will forgive you for certain things but if you don't put on that shirt and give everything, they will not understand you. That effort can cover a multitude of other sins.

"When I came here people were losing their jobs at this club because of relegation. You came in, met people every day and found out that their livelihoods had been ruined because the team had not performed on a Saturday. As footballers we understood exactly the implications of what we had done and it was not a nice feeling to have."

Michael Gray, Breen's predecessor as Sunderland captain, did not understand and was stripped of the role by McCarthy for showing off his new Ferrari at the club's training ground on the day 70 staff lost jobs. McCarthy, who had turned down a seven-series BMW that came with the manager's job as too ostentatious, thought it crassly insensitive.

As we talked in the club's futuristic training complex, the kind Bolton could only imagine, McCarthy was on the prowl against complacency. He had been told that Stephen Wright, the club's right-back, had announced Sunderland were aiming for 12 points over the Christmas period and his manager wanted a dose of the traditional pessimism. "I can feel it and smell it; it drives me mad," he said. "Everyone looks at the fixture list and ticks off the wins. Everybody thinks we have a right to pick up points."

Sunderland have the deepest squad in the Championship. At no other club, save perhaps West Ham, would Michael Bridges be on the bench. Burnley, today's opponents at the Stadium of Light, recently named their first-team coach as a substitute. Many of McCarthy's signings were, however, young and little known; boys like Liam Lawrence from Mansfield, Danny Collins from Chester, Stephen Elliott from Manchester City's reserves, Dean Whitehead from Oxford.

"Before, the club went for proven, experienced players," Breen said. "Now it has gone a different route, going for people who are hungry to achieve something in their careers." McCarthy, he said, used exactly the same tactics when managing Ireland and thought that if they had won their penalty shoot-out with Spain, they might have made the World Cup final. "All we would have had to do was beat South Korea and Germany. I always think what a missed opportunity that was."

If there was a key game in Sunderland's season thus far, it came at home to Ipswich last month. They won emphatically with beautiful, passing football. It was the match that convinced many Sunderland would make the Premiership.

"The fact that it was on television made it a statement," said Breen. "Opposition managers would have been watching and saw Ipswich try to take us on in a football game and lose. That's something we've not had to deal with since because teams have watched that match and have sat back and tried to hit us on the break. There are not going to be any teams that will out-football us. We don't feel any team can stop us, it's the league in itself that's the greatest obstacle; the fact that you play every four or five days."

Breen is very much McCarthy's man. The London sound in his voice hides the fact that he comes from a second-generation immigrant family, whose men played Gaelic football. His grandmother lives in Co Clare, the rest of the family are scattered throughout Kerry and Cork. He turned 31 on Sunday but reckoned he could go on for four more years. "I played with Gordon Strachan at Coventry, who used to eat bananas and seaweed to keep going, and saw how he played to a relatively old age and saw how Gary McAllister and Roland Nilsson adapted. There was no drinking at Coventry; team spirit was bonded on the training field and on pre-season trips and Mick has done marvellously in that respect.

"Going out and getting drunk together [a tactic used with some success by McCarthy's predecessor Peter Reid] is ridiculous; it's so totally old-school. That's why the manager took us to America for two weeks. You build up team spirit by living in each other's pockets in a hotel, sharing a room."

McCarthy, who gave him his international debut, was the only reason he came to the North-east and perhaps a significant reason why he chose to stay a second season on Wearside after Sunderland's first attempt to regain the Premiership, hampered in Breen's opinion by the run to the FA Cup semi-final, ended in a series of wretchedly taken penalties in the play-off semi-final with Crystal Palace. Breen's implication is that if there is no promotion at the end of this campaign he will not seek to linger.

"I do trust Mick and that is the quality that I always look for in a manager. If you are playing badly, he'll tell you. There is no hidden agenda. He is blunt. I am not going to name names but I have worked with managers who will tell you one thing when you absolutely know they are thinking another. You can't work with that."

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