He was the player that Kevin Keegan once described as the perfect defender. The man Louis Saha called ‘Cyborg’.
Sylvain Distin was always an impressively reliable, robust, respected and expectation-defying footballer, disinterested in flair and personal glory, preferring fight, physicality, and fitness. A defender who unapologetically left his pleading coaches exasperated but impressed with his resolute determination for self-improvement and training. Despite hailing from the suburbs of Paris, Distin was a visible throwback to the traditional concept of the idealised English centre-back.
The French defender was a staple of Premier League football for 15 years from the early 2000s onwards, playing at Newcastle United, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Everton, and Bournemouth and is one of the few players who can claim to have played in a Manchester, Merseyside, and Tyne-Wear Derby.
Upon retirement in 2016 Distin had become, and as of May 2020 remains, the all-time record appearance maker for an outfield foreign player in the Premier League.
Sylvain, 40, spoke exclusively to The Sportsman about his time in England, that historic FA Cup success with Portsmouth in ‘08, the best managers he’s ever worked with, which current defender he’d like to play alongside now, and explains what’s the better feeling between scoring at Anfield, or winning at Old Trafford.
Is there a particular moment in your 15-year Premier League career that you consider formative?
I could say the obvious - the FA Cup victory with Portsmouth - but it wasn’t just about winning.
It could even be the 2012 FA Cup semi-final with Everton when I made a mistake to bring Liverpool back into the game. It was a tough time but I learned a lot. Good or bad times, just carry on if you feel comfortable with yourself and your choices.
Which achievement do you feel remains personally the most important?
I feel like every time I left the club that I played for it was ‘job done’. At Newcastle I arrived and I was not supposed to play and then, after a month, I settled down, I played every game, and we qualified for the Champions League. At Manchester City the goal was to stabilise and remain in the Premier League and that's what we did. We didn’t have a particularly special aim at Portsmouth and we ended up winning the FA Cup, and at Everton we were trying to be competitive and break into the top four against clubs that were way more powerful than us at the time and we were certainly at the door most seasons. Even at Bournemouth nobody else thought that we’d remain in the Premier League. I felt that I did what I had to do at every club.
And what about the achievement as the top appearance maker in the Premier League for a foreign outfield player?
If you don't play for one of the top four or five clubs in England it’s really difficult to win a trophy. I managed to get club Player of the Year awards and some personal records. I never really counted games or anything so when I found out not that long ago that I'm in the top 20 most appearance-makers in the Premier League I feel that it couldn’t be possible. When I look at the other 20 players that I'm alongside, I have to think ‘Wait a second what is my name doing there?!’ I hope that achievement is just going to help other players realise that you don't have to be Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s only one Ronaldo in the world. But if you work hard, yes you might not be the best player in the world but but you can still achieve.
Back in 2004 you were part of a remarkable 4-3 FA Cup comeback with ten men against Spurs at White Hart Lane, with you scoring the first goal of the turnaround. For a certain generation of City fans this still remains a special match in their history despite all the success that has since arrived. What are your memories of that day?
It was just a roller coaster. We were 3-0 down at halftime. We hadn’t played that badly but Tottenham had been just better than us, and we had made a couple of mistakes that cost up goals. As soon as the referee blows the whistle for halftime you realise it’s going to be tough in the dressing room and that the second half is going to be hell. Everybody had their heads in their hands, looking at the floor and getting a bollocking from the manager.
I just don't know what happened in the second half. After our first goal, it was about possibly scoring a second to not look as stupid. When you end up winning the game that’s just the beauty of football, a magical moment and a big roller coaster of emotion. You have gone from as low as you can to as high as you can in the space off like 45 minutes.
Do you have any regrets from your footballing career?
Perhaps my only regret as a footballer is in the 2012 FA Cup semi-final loss to Liverpool with Everton. I made that mistake for Liverpool’s equaliser and I didn't speak at halftime. Eight years down the line, I feel I should have stood up instead of feeling sorry for myself in the dressing room. I should have stood up and told the guys ‘It’s only 1-1, we're not losing.’
If I could change something, it would be that. We only change the momentum of the game and the captain can bring back the momentum in the right direction.
You’re also in the fairly unique position of having played for what have gone onto become the two richest clubs in the world in PSG and Manchester City. How do you feel the clubs have changed and would you prefer to play for them now, or when you originally did before the arrival of money?
My bank manager would prefer for me to play for them right now! With the arrival of money, there's some really positive things that are gonna happen . But simply in the same way when you don't have much money you need to build to build a better team spirit. Because they have the money to buy players with more quality, though what you cannot buy is the atmosphere in the dressing room. So you know, you have to be stronger as a team because you don't have as many disabilities. Would I have a problem playing for City right now? Of course not, they have an amazing team and manager, they’re in a great position financially, winning trophies season after season. But they are two very different clubs: it's very difficult to compare the City I played for and the City I see right now. Different ambitions, different mentality, everything changed, but I will never compare the two. It's just different clubs in different positions. A lot of things changed and for the good of the club. I would rather watch them fighting for the league than fighting against relegation, that's for sure.
Your arrival at City in 2002 was the precursor to the new era, with the new stadium and recent promotion to the Premier League. You could be seen as still part of the more recent tapestry of success, wouldn’t you agree?
Oh yeah the club owes me everything (laughs)! We had to remain in the Premier League. That was the goal and that's what we did. We stabilised the club in the Premier League and then because of the new stadium, people started to see the potential of Manchester City. It'll be very flattering for me to believe this is what happened. Fantastic.
How did it feel winning the world’s oldest football competition with Portsmouth in 2008?
As a footballer, whatever you can add to your portfolio is good. But when you win the FA Cup with a club like Portsmouth it just has a different flavour. You don't expect it to happen. It's tough because it's harder because you’re with a club that isn’t expected to be winning those types of competitions. But at the same time, it's easier because you’re playing without pressure. If you don't win it, it's normal. If you do, you're a hero. However, with the final [against Cardiff City] there was the pressure of playing against another ‘dark horse’ team. Ultimately it's a comfortable position, but a very difficult one to go all the way all the way through to success.
As an Everton player what was better, scoring at Anfield or playing in the Toffees’ only win at Old Trafford in 25 years?
Scoring at Anfield. Especially after already scoring and it being disallowed, I still don't understand why. But it was special, and that was because of the time. I don't feel that the Merseyside Derby has that feeling anymore. Possibly because there’s a lot of foreign players and players who haven't been in the Premier League for a long time.
When I played, in both the Everton Liverpool sides, certain players had been at the club for many years and it meant a lot to them. I can't speak for the Liverpool side but I can tell you that at Everton, when you first arrive you understand very quickly that this is a special game and that was the type of game I like. In my era it was physical and tactical. Now sometimes I watch these types of games and, though I won't say I'm bored, I don't see the intensity that it had in the past.
How do they compare, the Tyne-Wear, Manchester and Merseyside Derbies?
Newcastle versus Sunderland was more like rugby and football. That was physically a tough one.
Manchester City against United was different because we were far from them at the time - we were trying to remain in the Premier League and they were trying to be in the Champions League. The gap was massive, but because of our mentality we were trying to compete and fight. You start the game knowing that it's gonna be hard. With Everton against Liverpool, I felt like it was a gap but the gap was not as big. That was a mix of fighting, spirit, physicality and technical football. You could not just tackle. The first 10 to 15 minutes it was not football. It was just strong tackling and showing that you would not back down no one wanted to back down. You could feel it on the pitch.
That Everton backline had yourself Phil Jagielka, Tony Hibbert, Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman, John Heitinga. In retrospect, it's getting more appreciation now than it did at the time. Why was it so effective?
It was really a team effort. It was thanks to all of us and the manager as well who put that mentality into the players. I think defensively we were one of the best in the league for three or four consecutive seasons. It was a great achievement. Also it didn’t break the bank at all. It didn’t even cost £20 million for about five players. But that's what Everton was. It was not just about the football but a special mentality in the dressing room and they wanted to make sure that the players fit that mentality as well. So there was a lot of thought process behind it. With my other defenders we weren’t necessarily best friends, spending all the time together. It was just great understanding ,a great chemistry on the pitch and complementarity. That’s the best thing.
Who was your favourite manager to play under?
David Moyes at Everton. Because of my age when I joined the club (31) I was expected to deteriorate and play less and less, but because of him I started to do more and I really got the benefit out of it.
But the one that really marked me was Sir Bobby Robson. He was just a legend.
If you were to go back into the game today, looking around at your contemporaries in your position, if you could partner any player still playing today at centre-back who would it be?
It’s difficult because football is changing. And I'm a bit old school. I take pride in defending. Today, a lot of centre-backs are more like midfielders. Not that I don't appreciate the quality but there’s not many centre backs I look at it thinking I can feel that defensive feeling and mentality.
I would say Virgil van Djik. That’s one I’d like to partner with. I like Aymeric Laporte as well. He’s French so that helps! But I’ve always liked Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy at Brighton. They make me feel, as a defender, that I wish I was playing again. Not the prettiest, the most elegant, or the classiest players but I just love their defensive mentality.