Sulaiman Folarin chats to Tyneside's departing son about leaving St James' Park this summer, what comes next – and his very first World Cup...
This is your first World Cup as a player, so would you say better late than never? How would you sum it up so far?
Yes, this is the icing on the cake for me. If you told me three or four years ago that I would have a chance to board the plane to Brazil I might have had a little hesitation. I’m not taking anything for granted. This is a chance that God has given me. I’ve enjoyed a long career and this coming at this stage is a blessing. I’m grabbing it with both hands.
Many players your age will be at their second or third World Cup. How are you approaching this debut?
Like I approach anything, and any tournament I play in. What you really want as a group of players is to come together. Being one of the elder statesman, it’s about being the leader in the dressing room. I think it is important for me to bring that experience and the qualities that I have not just on the pitch, but off it as well.
So you make sure that we are together as a squad and we know what it takes to win in tournament football. It’s not always the best teams that win, but the most united teams that stick together and play together. I know coach [Stephen Keshi] has been making sure we understand that. It’s for me to enforce it.
What are your expectations with this Nigerian team? Does it advance out of the group stage?
Yes, in terms of quality of course. We have a lot of quality, but like I said before it's not just about that. It’s about how we apply it and how we bring the best out of ourselves not individually, but collectively as a team. If you ask me are we good enough to make it out of the group? Of course we are. It’s important that we don’t take it for granted, but know that everyone who made it here deserves to be here.
For the first time in a World Cup, can two African countries advance?
It’s tough to say. There are so many good sides in this World Cup. There is not a game out there that you can comfortably say one team will win. I think that’s the level of the teams here. It would be great for us to say as a group of African nations that we can get multiple teams out of the group.
We’re hoping to advance and focus on our job. As a team and a nation, Nigeria wants to get out of this group. In terms of ourselves, we want to maximise what we have.
There is always a first time for everything, right? So that’s what we’re trying to achieve. It’s not a secret that the African countries haven’t done as well as we’d have liked them to, but it’s important that we put that right. The sooner, the better.
You’d been at Newcastle for your entire career before the summer. How do you sum it up now it has come to an end?
It’s where I grew up. It's the city I love and the football club I’ve supported all my life, so I’ve been very privileged to play at the club for so long. It’s such a fantastic club that really has been a blessing to me. To have my family and my friends in the town that I love has been great.
It’s obviously a sad time for me leaving, but I’ve had fantastic memories good and bad. Overall I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s going to be strange not going back there next season, but life goes on. My focus at the moment is this World Cup and seeing how far we can get. After that we’ll see where the next experience takes us.
You said you had some fond memories. What are the best ones?
Obviously the people I met there, the relationships I built and the managers I played under, which has been more than a few [laughs]! Then there's the games I have been involved in too: playing in the Champions League, playing in European competitions – these things matter to me, playing at the highest level.
Also playing for the team that you support – there is no better feeling than that. It’s been a real honour for me to have been able to do that for so long. I don’t take any second of it for granted. I’ve been a lucky boy and hopefully I can carry on with my career and help another team succeed on the pitch.
Some of football’s top players like Ryan Giggs, John Terry, Francesco Totti and Paolo Maldini have played or are playing their entire careers at one club. What does it take to stay in one place and at the top of your game?
It’s a lot of hard work, commitment and sacrifice. You need a little bit of luck as well. I believe that God plays a factor in terms of injuries – you have to be lucky with that and have the commitment for the club. I’ve had a lot of offers over the years to leave, but my focus has always been to Newcastle. I felt that God will keep me there for as long I was needed. I felt in my heart this was the right time. There is a time to come and a time to go.
You’ve said the World Cup is your focus, but there have been rumours about you going to play in Australia or even MLS. Would you rather stay in England?
No, I haven’t made a decision yet. Like I said, my sole focus is the World Cup. After this we can sit down and have a look at what’s out there. It’s also important that the offers are there [laughs]! I can’t just walk into any club. We have to sit down and see what the best option is for me. Hopefully something will come and I will make the right decision.
In a 2001 interview with FFT, you said: “I can’t see myself ever wanting to leave Newcastle. I’ve always loved Newcastle and always will.” How does it feel to know you’ve given all to the club?
I’m only 32 so I hopefully I’ve got four or five more years in me. When I say 'Newcastle till I die' and 'I can’t see myself ever wanting to leave the club', that hasn’t changed, because I will be a Newcastle supporter and will continue to be. That I’m leaving the club doesn’t diminish that. It’s a club that is really close to my heart. My family and friends are still there. Hopefully it’s a place I will go back to in some capacity, to help give back to the club what they’ve given to me.
It’s a career I want to make last for as long as I can. Me leaving Newcastle is not the end, it’s a new beginning. By going somewhere else I can achieve some more and maximise what I have left in the game.
People from outside of England are mainly accustomed to watching the London, Liverpool and Manchester clubs. But just how big are Newcastle, the city and its support?
It’s a one-club city. For the people in the town it's what they live for. Football is a way of life up in Newcastle. When you’re winning, it’s the best place to be in the world, but when you’re losing it can be tough. We get over 50,000 fans every week coming to watch us. There are only three or four clubs in England that get more than that. It only just shows you the capacity for us to grow, move forward and hopefully compete at the highest level in the Premier League against the top teams, because that’s what we’ve done over the years.
Sir Bobby Robson, Sam Allardyce, Alan Shearer, Alan Pardew: just some of the managers you played under at Newcastle. Was there one who stood out for you?
My mentor in this game was the late Sir Bobby Robson. He’s the one that brought me through [the youth ranks]. He had the most impact in my career. He was like a father figure to me, and the one who helped me understand what it took to play at this level.
Even until he died, he was the one who I would talk to regularly about certain situations and he would give me a lot of help and advice. He gave me my chance and guided me through the tough times as well, because in football you have as much bad as you have good. He helped me with coping with praise, and with disappointment. He is someone I will never forget and who I hold dearly to my heart. He was a great man in all sense of the world.