My Favourite Game: Derby County 1-2 Sunderland

Jan Kruger

Continuing our series on our writers' favourite Sunderland games in their time supporting the Lads, Chris Weatherspoon heads back just under seven years, to a day that marked the first day of the rest of Sunderland's life...

Sometimes, a little anarchy is just what the doctor ordered. No one truly knows what it was that clicked inside Niall Quinn's head one summer day, what set the wheels in motion that resulted in Roy Keane - captain, leader, temperamental lunatic - stepping into the poisoned chalice that is the Sunderland manager's job. All we knew, all anyone knew, was that it was a step outside of the box. A sprint into the unknown. A dizzying leap of faith.

The year is 2006. Across the northeast some 5,000 or so red and whites awaken to a mild but bright September morning, ready to take a venture to the East Midlands. It comes on the back of a whirlwind eighteen days - even by Sunderland's standards.

If Wearsiders were tearing their hair out at the proceedings of the season just past, they could take comfort from thinking back just seven years to the far greater misery that was enveloping them like a storm cloud which would seemingly never pass.

Fifteen points were accumulated in an entire season, and even the messianic arrival of Niall Quinn as chairman (and, briefly, manager) looked unlikely to lift the gloom. Sunderland lost each of his first five games in charge, including a dismal 0-2 League Cup defeat at Bury, the side then bottom of the entire Football League.

Quinn, seeing his vision collapse around him in dramatic fashion, moved quick. Scarcely twenty-four hours since the latter debacle, news broke that Keane was the man to take up the Stadium of Light reigns permanently. Five days later, the man from Cork sat omnipotently in the upper reaches of his new side's home, glaring onwards as Sunderland plugged their way to a 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion.

It was Keane's opening game in charge, though, that truly set the club back on the right tracks. Here was a day that was enthralling in its narrative, and epochal in its meaning to Sunderland Association Football Club.

Fans travelling down to Pride Park that day were in an anticipatory mood well before the game itself got underway. In the space of a single transfer deadline day, Keane had firmly stamped his mark on both his new club and the Championship as a whole. Six players arrived on Wearside in a manic day that brought a stunning summer to an even more surprising denouement. From Liam Miller to Dwight Yorke, the names differed in magnitude, but one thing was certain: Sunderland, and Keane, meant business.

Cue the mass migration of another horde of red and whites. Keane's arrival had whetted the appetite of plenty nationwide, but nowhere more so than in the lands in and around SR5. False dawns were abundant on Wearside - indeed, they remain so - but the subplots and intrigue surrounding the new manager were enough to make even the most pessimistic of Black Cats wonder if this might be a turning point.

For forty-five minutes, it was anything but. Resplendent with no fewer than five debutantes, Sunderland struggled for fluidity and lacked the impetus that Keane's arrival was expected to bring. Up against another side struggling in the early throes of the season, the visitors gave the away end little cause for optimism. Accordingly, much of the early songs of support went the way of the Irishman in the dugout.

And then, inevitably, Derby went ahead. A searching diagonal ball made its way into the Sunderland box and Steve Howard peeled off Robbie Elliott's shoulder with ease, knocking the ball into the path of Matt Oakley, who made no mistake in despatching an opener right on half-time.

The emotion of the away end during the first interval of the Keane era was a strange one. Almost unanimously, the belief was that strips would be torn off the walls, as the new manager came down on his squad like a proverbial tonne of bricks. What caused such bemusement was this further step into the unknown. Would it work? Or would it worsen the malaise?

As it were, we never got to find out. Though no one outside the realms of the away dressing room was to know at time, those present for Roy Keane's first half-time managerial pep talk have described the opposite to the widely held expectation. Far from breaking into a fit of rage, Keane was the personification of serenity. Keep it simple. Keep the ball. Play your game. Quality - and belief - would out in the end.

He was proven correct in three minutes that singlehandedly turned Sunderland's season, and perhaps the club's entire future, firmly on its head.

The second half had opened with more verve and purpose than had been shown before the break, but it took until the hour mark for the cogs to start working cohesively.

Fittingly, it was one of the new boys who thrust Sunderland back into the light. Graham Kavanagh's overall contribution to his seventh senior club may rank low in the history books, but his impact on this particular game was instrumental.

Dean Whitehead ran onto a ball on the left wing, brought it under control and, with an opposing defender blocking his route to the Derby box, laid the ball backwards to his newest midfield teammate.

Kavanagh, hair greying and legs soon to fade, looked up, spotting fellow new man Ross Wallace lurking outside the home penalty area. A pass into feet and then a darting run into the box, one Wallace saw coming before anyone in a white shirt could react, and Kavanagh had made a run of greater purpose than any Sunderland player had managed in the previous first six games of the season. The bundled finish of Chris Brown was hardly pretty, but the run of the 32-year-old Kavanagh was a perfect example of the impact Quinn had hoped Keane would have when he hired him.

Two minutes later and the turnaround was complete. A long ball reached David Connolly, whose nodded pass was laid perfectly to the onrushing Wallace. The latter, recently signed from Celtic, raced on, flicking the ball to his left and out of reach of his nearest opponent. His finish, a rasping half-volley low into Stephen Bywater's bottom left corner, was emphatic. So too was the roar from behind the goal, as bedlam ensued and Wallace's top was soon lost amongst the hubbub.

Watch ITV's highlights of the game and, even now, seven years on, it is hard not to feel that Peter Drury's commentary perfectly captures the stature of the moment. A sentence that begins with him outlining the club's lowly 23rd position in the table ends with a thumping 'WALLACE!' that is befitting of the finish it describes - in one exhilarating goal an entire club had been reawakened.

Keane's revival of Sunderland did not, of course, follow quite so smoothly. Only after the turn of the year did his side hit full stride. But that opening game down at Derby County, and that warming, fighting comeback, was the game which well and truly remade the foundations of a club that had been dying on its knees just weeks earlier.

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