My first Sunderland manager was Peter Reid. Since then, not counting caretaker spells by Kevin Ball and Eric Black, or Quinny’s six game proof of his own fallibility, I’ve seen ten men manage Sunderland. If the FA do as we’re all expecting them to and give Sam Allardyce the job he’s been craving for over a decade, he’ll become only the second manager out of that ten that I’ll have been sad to lose.
Don’t get me wrong, my emotional responses to past managerial departures have varied widely. Sometimes, I’ve greeted it with a kind of stoic acceptance, like putting a much loved dog to sleep, unfortunate but inevitable, and ultimately the kindest thing. Sometimes, I’ve welcomed it with glee, a blessed relief from drudgery and impending disaster, an exorcism and an opportunity to start afresh. The end of each managerial reign has fallen somewhere on that scale, from relief to rejoicing. All, that is, apart from one.
The last time I was sad to lose a manager was December 4, 2008. Roy Keane’s tenure ended in characteristically explosive fashion, the 4-1 home defeat to Bolton sealing his fate. The following weeks were filled with stories of karate kicked tactics boards and dressing room punch-ups, of player celebrations at the manager’s demise. Yet much like Allardyce, Keane had come into Sunderland with the club in disarray, devoid of hope or pride or identity. And, much like Allardyce, he had set about changing that.
Keane, like Allardyce, recognised what Sunderland was about. He understood exactly how big the club he was walking into was, and he wasn’t ashamed to say it. Unlike some of his successors (a certain fat-headed Corbridge native to name just one), he wasn’t interested in making excuses, or accepting second best. His refusal of a celebration for winning the Championship title, on the basis that Premier League football should be the absolute minimum a club like Sunderland ought to expect, epitomised his vision.
I’m not trying to lionise Keane here, far from it. He is volatile, egotistical, almost pathologically driven in a way which makes it almost impossible for him to understand those who aren’t. His tactics were at times naive, his signings haphazard and often staggeringly wasteful. He was, and is, nowhere near Sam Allardyce’s level.
But the thing they shared, and continue to share, is the way that they made me feel. During Keane’s tenure, as during Allardyce’s (up to now), I felt proud of Sunderland’s footballers. They played for each other, worked together, looked like they were giving everything up for the shirt every time they crossed the white line. In their own ways, both managers demanded excellence, and in their own ways, both sets of players responded.
In my Sunderland supporting career, it’s rare for a group of players to actually look like a team. Keane achieved, that albeit briefly, as Allardyce has. We can only hope that whoever takes charge of Sunderland this season, whether Allardyce or Moyes or somebody entirely different, he can manage the same feat.