At the peak of his powers, Aiden McGeady was one of the finest players - if not the finest - to have graced League One. A cheat code for the Black Cats at that level. His trickery out on the left-hand side of the pitch spellbinding at times.

Playing in the third tier of English football may not have been front and centre on his career highlights reel, having won a plethora of silverware north of the border with Celtic, Champions League and Europa League experience on his CV, in a career that spanned from Russia, to the Premier League as a Republic of Ireland international, but it remains one of the most enjoyable parts of his career.

We Are Sunderland sat down with the former Black Cats talisman, for an exclusive look back on his time on Wearside, from being Sunderland's talisman and Wembley hoodoos, to banishment under Phil Parkinson and his disappointment at not being able to say a proper goodbye to the red and white faithful.

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"I’d obviously worked with Simon [Grayson] at Preston the season before and got me back really enjoying my football again," McGeady said as he reflected back on how his move to Sunderland came about back in 2017. 

"To be honest, I was going to sign for Preston and then he left and got the Sunderland job. Immediately he asked me if I wanted to join Sunderland and it was a no brainer. Simon phoned me and wanted to bring me in. I was like ‘Yeah, definitely, when can I sign?’ I liked living in Preston but going to Sunderland and that offer being on the table, I couldn’t turn that down.

"Sunderland had just been relegated and I thought at the time, when I was signing, the onus was to get straight back up. Cleary it wasn’t. Without being disrespectful, I started to notice very quickly the players that we were bringing in. There wasn’t a lot of money for Simon to go and buy players who were capable of getting us out of the league.

"A lot of players were coming in on loans, younger ones. I thought to myself, if they keep the same squad with [Jeremain] Lens and Wahbi Khazri, we’ve got a change. Ultimately, they all ended up going. I knew quite quickly then it wasn’t going to be an easy season."

Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland against Norwich in the Championship in 2017-18.Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland against Norwich in the Championship in 2017-18. (Image: Unknown)

Sunderland's 2017-18 campaign is one that has been consigned to the dark corner of their recent history. Among the pre-season favourites to win promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, it transpired into a season of hell for supporters.

Relegated with just seven wins all season, they finished the campaign rock bottom of the Championship on 37 points.

"Football is bizarre," McGeady adds after asking him about working under three mangers in one season - similar to Sunderland's most recent campaign. "Some things just go round in circles don’t they? Everybody has got new ideas about how football should be better, but ultimately they end up resorting back to habit. That season was crazy.

"You had a change in ownership at the end of the season but we had Simon Grayson, he only had 15 league games to be in charge and his results – I think we drew seven of them when he got the sack. If we had turned three or four of those into wins - I think we had 1-1 draws, 2-2 draws, draws when we were winning - if we’d turned them into wins then he would’ve still been in a job.

"I know the way the fanbase works and they were growing unhappy with the lack of results, the ownership were as well. He lost his job and Robbie Stockdale took over for a couple of games. Then Chris Coleman came in. Three managers in one season. It’s funny how the club are going through a transitional period now as well."

McGeady felt that the mentality of certain players that season played it's part in the club's demise and relegation to the third tier. "It wasn’t good enough on the pitch," he said. "There were a lot of players that were there, who were on loan who, I’m not saying their hearts weren’t in it, but they knew at the end of the season they were leaving.

"There were a lot of players there who, I felt, were playing for themselves at times. Who ultimately didn’t want to be there, there was players in that category. But the players who were picked over the course of the season just didn’t perform well enough. It’s not really down to any manager in particular.

"Although Chris Coleman I found him to be a bit of a strange one. He came in with this great reputation which he’d gained with Wales, and I didn’t really see anything to warrant that. Again, it’s not down to Chris Coleman, it’s down to the players who had to take a look at themselves after that. If you look at the league and then our squad, we should have never been relegated out of that league. Not even close to it."

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Much like the season prior, Sunderland were favourites to win automatic promotion from League One after relegation from the second tier. A transitional period saw the new ownership of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori take over the club, while the playing squad was overhauled under the guidance of new boss Jack Ross.

The Black Cats were in automatic promotion contention for almost the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign. Josh Maja's form a key part of their promotion push, that was until the club sold their top goal scorer in the January transfer window to Ligue 1 side Bordeaux.

Then owner, Donald, would go on record, explaining part of the reason behind the sale was to pay off the historic debt they owed to the French club as part of Wahbi Khazri's transfer deal back in 2016. A departure which many supporters feel derailed their season.

"We never wanted to be there," McGeady said when asked about the first season in League One. "It was successful in part, but we should have had that league wrapped up. I think I remember looking at the table when George Honeyman scored at Rochdale away to win the game, with a couple of games left to go, we had two games in hand on Barnsley and we were level on points with them.

"From then, until the end of the season, we picked up just a couple more points and ended up finishing fifth. It’s hard to say. I know a lot of criticism was levelled at Jack, when we were leading games for taking our foot off the gas maybe, stepping back and dropping deep, the same with the play-off final. I don’t think that was anything to do with Jack, I think it was just the players we had and being in that environment, on that stage.

"If I’m being totally honest and transparent, if we’d kept Maja we would have went up. He scored 16 goals before the turn of the year and we sold him. That goes back to the ownership model, we owed Bordeaux money for Wahbi Khazri that we hadn’t paid yet and the Maja deal almost cancelled that out. We let a 16 goal striker go who had put us up there towards the top of the league. There was games at the end of the season where you’re thinking, if you had Maja on the pitch you would have won those games.

"How can you let Maja go for a few million? What he would have wanted in terms of wages probably wouldn’t have been close to what Will Grigg wanted and they went out to get him, to replace Maja who was costing more. With evidence, he wasn’t as good as Maja as he didn’t score as many goals.

"I never understood that one. I was pleading with the club and Jack Ross, ‘Keep Maja whatever you do, if you keep Maja we’ll go up.’ He agreed but it was out of his hands. The club had a debt to Bordeaux that would have been wiped out if Maja went there. It’s not all down to that, but if you would have asked me if we’d kept Maja, would we have gone up? Then I would’ve said yes."

Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland in League One.Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland in League One.

Sunderland would lose in the League One play-off final against Charlton, and in the EFL Trophy against Portsmouth at the end of that season, their Wembley hoodoo still a dark cloud hanging over their heads. Ross was shown the door after defeat to Lincoln City the following year at Sincil Bank, with Phil Parkinson his successor.

Despite being a regular under Parkinson when he first came to the club, it's a chapter of McGeady's Wearside tenure that remains a terrible time for him. The 93-time Republic of Ireland international was frozen out of the first-team by the then Sunderland head coach, much to his bemusement.

"It was really bizarre," McGeady reflects. "It was such a tough, terrible time for me that because I just got pulled into his office one day, for a routine 'Go and see the gaffer' and he told me he didn’t want me round the place anymore.

"There hadn’t been a falling out, we hadn’t had anything. I was like 'Why, what are you talking about? Is this a wind up?' He said that he didn’t want me round the place anymore. He couldn’t give me a reason. His reason was based around me being too negative for the group. I was like, 'Gaffer we’ve just gone out of the Papa John’s Trophy, the FA Cup, the League Cup and we’re 15th in the league. You’re on about negativity?"

READ MORE: Inside Sunderland's 'forgotten' FA Cup Final run in 1992

To this day, McGeady says he's been given no genuine reason behind his banishment and felt scapegoated by Parkinson - a loan spell to Charlton in the Covid-hit 2020 campaign a brief hiatus away from Wearside . “I said that to him actually," he said when asked if he felt like a scapegoat. "Before this happened, he would call me into his office everyday as an ally to ask him about things, the team and the squad. Just lean on me for advice a little bit and then, that happened. What’s going on here?

"He almost played an absolute blinder and I said that to him. ‘You used me as though I was the root of the problem.’ After that, the team went on a half decent run and fans got on board with McGeady was the problem. He almost played a blinder, but everybody would see through him eventually and I did say that to him.

"I told him towards the end that everybody gets found out. After I came back from being on loan at Charlton, he was still trying his best to get rid of me. I was training with the Under-23s, I was still down the other side of the building. I think the owner got involved at one point, I text him and said ‘What are we doing here?’ The transfer window had closed.

"I was just getting on with it because I felt something had to give. I went on loan to Charlton because I wasn’t going to sit on my arse for six months and not play. It was a good experience, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had to play, so I went, but I wasn’t doing that again unless something came up that really suited me.

"I actually went to him [Parkinson] and said ‘I’m willing to speak to you in front of the group and if you feel like there’s anything that I’ve done wrong, I’ll apologise for it, even though I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ll apologise and make you look good in front of the group. You’re struggling on the pitch and I can see that. All I want to do is play. I find it bizarre that I’m sitting here and you’re paying me all this money just to sit at home on a Saturday.’

"He told me he’d think about it and I thought he was going to change his mind. Then he called me and said he wasn’t going to bring me back in because the group wasn’t ready for me. I was like ‘What do you mean the group isn’t ready for me? You can’t win a game.’ He asked me 'What I’d do if I was him' and I said 'I’d use every tool I had at my disposal to get the best results I could, if that included me, which I’m pretty sure it does, then this can be sorted'.

"He didn’t want to go back on himself. I let the transfer window come and go because I think he was hoping I’d go. When the transfer window closed, Stewart Donald phoned me and asked what was going on. He thought at one point I’d be away, or the manager would be away, but we were both still there. I’ve not tried to speak to him [Parkinson] since and I’m not interested.

Aiden McGeady was banished to Sunderland's Under-23s by Phil Parkinson, and to this day, claims there had been no falling out.Aiden McGeady was banished to Sunderland's Under-23s by Phil Parkinson, and to this day, claims there had been no falling out.

"I’d been training with the U23s, doing what I’d been doing since June or July onwards. I think what ultimately happened, Stewart Donald said to Parkinson, ‘You’ve got to use him, because we’re not having him sit in the U23s when we know he’s a good player.’ Parky was clever but not smart enough for me. He said I needed to be really, really fit and he’d bring me back in with the first team. ‘You have to be flying fitness wise,’ and I was like ‘Right, okay.’

"He made me train with the fitness coach, I’d still train with the 23s and then I’d do extra running with the fitness coach after every session. One day, I had to come in at 2pm on my own, a really hard running session, and I went to the fitness coach ‘What are you doing this for? I know you’ve been told to do this but why is he doing this?’ He’s trying to make it look like I’m not fit enough so he can go to the owner and say I’m not fit enough.

"I think he was trying to drag it out until January. He still wasn’t letting me train with the first team, so I went to see him. I asked why I couldn’t train with the first team. He told me I’d still train with the 23s because I’d not had a lot of training with them. I’d been training with the 23s since July. He told me I needed to do a period of rehabilitation with the fitness coach and Elliot Embleton hadn’t done that.

"He’d been injured and gone straight back in with the first team. He didn’t have an answer. I knew what he was trying to do. That was going on and on. I was potentially going to move to somewhere in Australia and then, by pure chance, he got the sack. It shows you how quickly it can change. It can change in a second."

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After Parkinson's sacking, new Sunderland head coach Lee Johnson took the swift decision to bring McGeady back in from the cold. One phone call on the Friday evening before Johnson's first game in charge, saw the winger be handed a career lifeline.

"To be honest, I never had any real discussions apart from the day before the Wigan game. I’d trained with the Under 23s and Lee Johnson rang me, he said: ‘The first team are playing Wigan tomorrow, do you want to start?’

"Again, it was quite clever from Lee Johnson because if I wasn’t a good player, he wouldn’t have done that. He thought, why would I have a good player sitting at home? It also bought him a bit of loyalty from me as well. I felt indebted towards him after he brought me in from the cold.

"He didn’t have to do that and he did. There wasn’t really a conversation as such, he just asked me if I wanted to play tomorrow and I said 'Yeah'. He asked me what happened with Phil Parkinson and I genuinely don’t know.

"Deep down, I think in that dressing room he [Parkinson] wanted it to be his way and not have people question him, not have players at a high level that could see through his message and his tactics. That’s what I think it was down to, because he couldn’t give me any answers.

"It was a terrible time for me because I couldn’t speak out. I couldn’t do interviews. People were saying I was bullying the younger players but I was training with them everyday. If I was bullying them, surely I would have been sacked?

"If I was doing something, bad behaviour or brought the club into disrepute then I would’ve been sacked? I wouldn’t still be getting paid every week. It would have been a breach of contract."

Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland during the Papa John's Trophy triumph against Tranmere Rovers.Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland during the Papa John's Trophy triumph against Tranmere Rovers. (Image: Unknown)

McGeady recorded eight assists in his first 12 games after being recalled to the first-team, back enjoying his football, it's the most settled he's felt in his career, even if football was played behind closed doors that season.

"I was just enjoying my football," he said. "I knew what I was capable of when I was playing well and I knew what I could bring to the team. It was almost what I was trying to say to Phil Parkinson. ‘I can help you not get the sack here.’ I said that to him, that I could keep him in a job.

"I don’t know why he was cutting his nose off to spite his face. For me, that was one of the periods at Sunderland, albeit the season didn’t finish very well, that season I was loving my football and playing back at Sunderland. Albeit, it wasn’t in front of fans because of covid."

McGeady's partnership with Charlie Wyke flourished that season, the pair both mainstays in Johnson's starting XI and a huge part in reaching the play-offs. A 4-1 win over Doncaster Rovers one of a number of fine individual McGeady displays, grabbing all four assists for all four of Wyke's goals.

"Charlie was one of those, whenever I played - especially in Lee Johnson’s team - whenever I got the ball out wide, if I put a cross in certain areas, more often than not, Charlie would be hanging off the back stick and move into the centre. If I stood a cross up, he would come through and get over the top of people and get on the end of it.

"Charlie had a very good season that season too. I was just loving my football and being back playing. I’ve got a great admiration and love for the club. I still look out for the scores, I still speak to some of the lads there, the staff.

"I enjoyed Russia but it never felt like home to me. Sunderland is probably the most settled that I’ve been at a club which is why I stayed for so long. There were times where I could’ve moved on, but I didn’t really want to. My family was settled and it was a massive football club, I was telling myself every season that we’d get promoted. Ultimately it never happened until the very last season."

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Sunderland may have been beaten by Lincoln City in the play-off semi-final, but they did shift their Wembley hoodoo in the Papa John's Trophy that season, winning at the home of English football for the first time since their historic FA Cup triumph in 1973.

A positive to take, but disappointing not to celebrate with supporters, McGeady said: "That was football back then, Covid and all the restrictions. It was disappointing. I know we ended up beating Tranmere but if the fans were there it would have been a great occasion.

"The fans hadn’t seen us win there since the FA Cup Final in 1973. It was disappointing but to be honest with you, we just thought let’s get the job done. We’ve got to win because there was almost like a hoodoo on us at Wembley. Losing in play-off finals, we lost the final the year before and the Papa John’s. It was good to win and come away with something to show that we could win at Wembley."

There was hope that play-off success would follow the Wembley triumph, however, that was cast into doubt leading up to the end of season fixture. The Republic of Ireland international would automatically trigger an extension in his contract if he featured in 30 games that season.

McGeady's 29th game was the final game of the season before the first leg of the play-off semi-final. They needed their talisman to start to have the best chance of winning promotion.

Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland in the first leg of the League One play-off semi-final against Lincoln City.Aiden McGeady in action for Sunderland in the first leg of the League One play-off semi-final against Lincoln City.

"I had a clause in my contract where if I played 30 games, I’d trigger another year and I was on my 29th game," McGeady reveals. "I signed that under Stewart Donald and the club realised that. It was brought to their attention and I would have been on the same money but they couldn’t do that. It was fine, I’m not going to be difficult about it but they were clearly happy with my performances.

"Now, it was their turn to hold up their end of the bargain because that’s why you end up having clauses in contracts. It came to it, where they agreed to offer me a new contract but they didn’t know what it would be. They had to have something for me, because I was going to play regardless. If I started one more game, I was getting a new contract on these terms.

"Because they didn’t know what league they were going to be in, they asked me to sign a waiver. I said no until I was shown another contract. It didn’t have to be on the same money, just offer me something and we can carry on. I was told I couldn’t start any games until I signed the waiver.

"I almost thought it was a little bit of a test and they might hold me in high esteem because I played on and signed the waiver. Then when it comes to it, they might go ‘He played through it and his heart is in it.’

"I signed the waiver and ended up playing the two play-off games against Lincoln and in the summer they did eventually come through and offer me a contract. It wasn’t anything close to what I was expecting but my family was settled and it was fine."

Sunderland's campaign would once again end in play-off disappointment.

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The 2021-22 campaign sparked the return of normality. Covid-19 restrictions were lifting and supporters were once again able to attend football matches, but for McGeady a reoccurring knee injury blighted his campaign.

"That was a really difficult season," he said. "I spent the majority of it injured. It was tough. Football is funny the way it works, who knows, if I hadn’t got that injury I might still be at Sunderland, I would have definitely been there for another year at least if I was playing every game.

"I did my knee and it was a reoccurring injury. Things that happened didn’t help it. I came back too early and did it again, after that, I did it again. Then I ended up missing four or five months that season. I’m still happy to say I was part of the team that eventually got promoted back to the Championship, because that was the goal all along, it just took a bit longer than expected."

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus' decision to part ways with Lee Johnson is well documented as part of the most recent Sunderland 'Til I Die series on Netflix, Alex Neil's appointment acting as the catalyst to get the Black Cats over the line via the play-offs.

Having suffered from setbacks throughout the campaign, getting one more appearance in a red and white shirt was at the forefront of McGeady's mind.

Aiden McGeady celebrates after scoring against Ipswich Town in 2021/22.Aiden McGeady celebrates after scoring against Ipswich Town in 2021/22.

"I had the play-offs in mind," McGeady reveals when asked about a final swansong. "I have nothing against Alex Neil at all. He picked his team based on what he thought was going to win the game. When I was injured he said to me ‘Take your time, I know how good a payer you are, I've played against you, you don’t have to tell me, get yourself right and we’ll integrate you back into the team.’

"I think my first game back was the Morecambe game. I think we had to win to make sure of guaranteed play-offs. He said he was going to give me a run out there and then didn’t. I thought it was strange that he put Dan Neil on in the number ten.

"Then I was on the bench for the first leg of the play-offs and it would have been my last game at the Stadium of Light. He never put me on either. I never got the chance to say goodbye to the fans.

"That’s football. I was a bit disappointed with that. Even if you’re not going to play me or keep me for next season, I’d been at the club for five years and you’re not going to give me five minutes on the pitch to say bye to the fans.

"In the second leg, I was totally left out altogether. He said he wanted to put Nathan Broadhead on the bench ahead of me, for some strange reason, even though he only had one hamstring at the time. Whatever, it was fine. We got to the final and I trained as hard as I could. I didn’t want to have another fallout with another manager, so I kept my head down.

"Ahead of the play-off final, I was going up to the meeting and he pulled me to one said and asked to speak to me. I went ‘Here we go, am I in the stand again?’ He said 'No' and I was on the bench. That game as well, if I’m being honest, he could have used me. He put on Nathan, he put on Jack Clarke and other players. I understand he’s got to win and he had his team that had been successful for him.

"I just thought give me five minutes at Wembley in my last game for Sunderland. Sometimes, you don’t get fairy-tale endings. It was good that we got promoted, got the job done and I was part of that team that got promotion. I’ll always look back on that with fond memories because we put up with a lot."

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It's clear from the manner in which McGeady recalls his time on Wearside, that he fell in love with the club. His no-nonsense, straight talking demeanour something that is fading out of the modern game, but a trait that made him a fan favourite.

"The fans put up with a lot, but the players, everybody thinks they’re like robots, but we suffered as well," he continues. "You’re the ones who fall short but I loved my time at Sunderland. I would never say a bad word about it. I loved the place, I loved where I lived.

"The people were really warm and welcoming. I loved the club and I still want to see the club do well. I’ve been in contact with Kristjaan [Speakman] and Stuart Harvey. With what I’m doing at Ayr United – I’m still playing but I’m doing a lot of things in different areas, helping with recruitment, doing a bit of coaching, doing individual work with players, helping with signings and loans. That’s how I’ve been in touch with them. I’d love to come back [to Sunderland] in some capacity if the opportunity was there."

McGeady had a spell with Lee Johnson at Hibernian, before linking up with Ayr in the Scottish Championship. The former tricky winger still laces up his boots, but has a hand in a number of off the field roles as a technical director and is approaching the next stage of his career.

"I think ideally, I’d like to be a director of football or sporting director of a football club," he divulges. "You don’t just walk into one of those jobs. You have to work your way up to it. Just now, I’m coaching. I do like coaching, I really like helping the younger players and I always have because I think they’re more receptive to ideas.

"I think it would be a shame not to pass on the experience that I’ve got and keep it to myself. I’m doing that and finishing my A-License, which I should have finished last summer. I’m doing loads of different courses going forward which will help me with my CV.

"I'm just trying to narrow it down, when I finish playing, what sort of route I want to go down. I don’t know if that’ll be at an academy, like an academy director or something where you’re involved in a bit of coaching as well.

"I do like coaching but I don’t think I want to be a manager. I see the stress managers are under and it’s inevitable that you’ll be sacked at some point. I think there’s more longevity in other roles which I’d enjoy more as well."

Aiden McGeady now finds himself at Scottish Championship side Ayr United.Aiden McGeady now finds himself at Scottish Championship side Ayr United. (Image: Unknown)

Still an avid supporter of the Black Cats, McGeady keeps a close eye on results at the Stadium of Light and has lift the lid on conversations he had with Sunderland's sporting director Kristjaan Speakman during his time at the club.

"You can see the Sunderland model taking shape now under Kristjaan," he said. "Whether that’s bringing in younger players, developing them and giving them game time to sell on for a profit. That’s the model now.

"The only problem is, and I said this to Kristjaan at the time, I understand the model and you have one or two players over the age of 30 and most of your squad is made up of players 25-30 and then emerging talents. At Sunderland, you need success now as well. You don’t have a small club here.

"At Brentford, it took them ten years to do that. I don’t think Brentford have as much pressure as a fanbase. They were allowed to make mistakes and be unsuccessful before they got it right. At Sunderland you have to get success. You can do it all, but you have to get success on the pitch every single week.

"I think there’s always got to be a balance. People look at players over the age of 30 and think, ‘I’m not touching him.’ Sometimes you need a balance of three or four players who have ran the race already, who know the league, know the teams and have got the experience to help guide the younger ones. I don’t pick the team or the squad, that’s just how Sunderland are doing it right now and how Kristjaan and Kyril want to do it."

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Similarly to McGeady during his time at the club, Sunderland find themselves reliant on Jack Clarke to produce moments of magic at the top end of the pitch. When asked about the current Black Cats talisman, McGeady added: "In terms of Jack Clarke, it’s important they try to keep him but if a big enough offer came in, I don’t think it would be too hard to leave if I’m being honest.

"Which is unfortunate because, in my view, Jack Clarke is a really good player and a good guy as well, but if you want to go places, get promoted back to the Premier League, then you have to keep your best players and build teams around these types of players. Jack had a fantastic season last year. The mantle was on him, if he wasn’t playing well, then the team weren’t going to win almost.

"That’s what comes with being a good player and to be fair to him, he took that on, took that responsibility on his shoulders and did really well. I hope Sunderland and the team get in someone this time who is going to get success and have a bit of time to do it."