(Part one) - The Return of the Quinn: Click here!
(Part two) - Keano arrives: Click here!
“You want me to leave this? You want me to leave fucking Australia?”
Roy Keane soon realised that there was “a lot of work to be done” after taking his first training session at Sunderland. But he and the recruitment staff would have to work quickly to improve his new squad; the transfer window closed in a matter of days.
Publicly, Keane insisted that it wouldn’t be “too much of a problem” if he couldn’t sign new players. But behind the scenes, he knew that he needed reinforcements.
We had to spend money. We were heading towards League One; we’d got used to losing.
Ordinarily, a lack of time would be viewed as a hindrance. But rather, Keane thought it “worked well for us on this occasion.” If he had longer, he’d have “people bouncing off me, people moving the goalposts,” but instead, “the players and their clubs had a quick decision to make.”
Keane insisted that he did not want to “get into any sort of panic situation” in terms of recruitment. The transfer deadline “makes people panic; agents are holding guns to the heads of chairmen and it backfires on everybody.” Quinn “trusted” Keane “to get on with it,” while Quinn and chief executive Peter Walker were “brilliant,” which made the entire process a smooth one.
“They got it done for me,” recalls Keane. “I asked for six players and they came back with six.” Graham Kavanagh, Stan Varga, Ross Wallace, Liam Miller, David Connolly and Dwight Yorke all joined on the last day of the window.
For Keane, it was important to not only sign “good players,” but “good characters” who had “all played for their countries.”
“It lifted Sunderland – the city and the club,” Keane reflects. “We weren’t signing Ronaldo, but they were good players. You’d have looked at them and said, ‘Well, we’re heading up the table.’”
Keane’s “best signing,” in his words, was the capture of Dwight Yorke. “He brought an aura to the club that it hadn’t had. It’s all about characters. Yorkie arrived, and my staff were saying, ‘He’s some man, isn’t he?’”
Convincing him would be difficult; “He had the penthouse in Sydney Harbour, the Lamborghini and all the women. A hard life.” But Keane knew that he “loved football; he loved the game and he liked a challenge.”
“You want me to leave this? You want me to leave fucking Australia?” was Yorke’s response to Keane’s request. In isolation, it reads like a jocular quote, but deep down, Yorke was “gutted and completely devastated” to be leaving Sydney. “I can’t believe I'm leaving. I really can't believe it," he told the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Keane, however, ensured that “there's no problem at all.”
Keane was not quite the “world-class” manager that Quinn had assured fans would arrive, but his career and reputation as a world-class player was proving to be attractive to prospective signings.
“When someone of Roy's stature wants to sign you then it's hard to say no,” said Wallace, while Varga said that he was “delighted to play for a person like Roy Keane.”
“Roy Keane is my inspiration,” added Kavanagh. “He'll be remembered as one of the best midfielders ever so it's not hard to understand why I want to play under him.”
With new signings added to the squad, Keane turned his attentions to preparing for his first game, away at Derby. In his autobiography, he recalls a humorous team meeting the night before.
Keane had targeted the Derby ‘keeper Lee Camp, who was said to be weak with the ball in the air. As Keane described his game-plan, David Connolly told him that he had been “sold a week ago.” Camp had been loaned to Norwich two days previously.
“Not injured, fucking sold. And I was supposed to the big hero coming in to save the club,” Keane recalls. “But it helped, it relaxed everybody. It was good for me, because it embarrassed me. Instead of trying to be the perfectionist, the sergeant major, it lightened the mood.”
Derby took the lead, before goals from Chris Brown and Ross Wallace saw Sunderland complete the turnaround. The Sunderland Echo exclaimed that “THE PRIDE IS BACK. Just for one day, you felt, God had decided to be a Mackem!”
Many may have expected the famously hot-headed Keane to lose his temper with his side down at half time, but goalscorer Brown described how “there was no shouting; he said he believed in us and to be told that when you're a goal down is a big boost.”
“To score was special, even more so as it came at the Sunderland end,” added Wallace. “The goal is a bit of a blur. It broke to me, I took a touch and hit it and then everyone went crazy. It’s brilliant.”
Sunderland then won 3-0 away at Leeds, before a “reality check” 1-1 home draw with Leicester. Keane admitted that it was “a tired performance” and took responsibility for “not doing my job well” by not “freshening it up.”
Nonetheless, seven points from three games was an impressive start. But Keane experienced his first defeat as a manager next time out, a disappointing 3-1 collapse at Ipswich. It was “an important day” for him.
“I was always looking to see what the staff contributed on match day,” he explained. “One took charge of the music. It might seem strange, but you find out about characters when you look to see who’s in charge of the music. I noticed none of the players were taking charge, and this was a concern for me.”
Keane felt that the dressing room was the players’, and that staff had to “know their place.” The last song before leaving for the pitch was ‘Dancing Queen.’ What concerned him was that nobody said “get that shit off.” ‘Dancing Queen’ was not to blame for Sunderland’s loss, but Keane saw it as a sign that he had fewer leaders than he first thought.
They were going out to play a match, men versus men; testosterone levels were high. You’ve got to hit people at pace. Fucking Dancing Queen.
Sunderland got back on track, momentarily, with a 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday, but lost their next two games, including a 4-1 defeat away at Preston. 6,000 fans were there to witness what Chronicle reporter James Hunter said “proved that there is a long, long way to go yet before they are anywhere near challenging for a top-six place.
“Sunderland showed the way for the rest of the Championship,” he added. “The way, that is, to earn a one-way ticket to League One, so poor was their display at the weekend.”
Keane admitted that the “novelty of myself and the new players being here” had “worn off;” it was “another reality check” for his squad.
“I have tried to give players a chance,” he added. “When I took the job seven weeks ago I had initial feelings about the players and they have been confirmed to me, be it good or bad. I am not just judging on the weekend but on the six or seven weeks I have been here. The first few weeks were great but we are back down to earth now.”
Despite three defeats in four games which “worried me a bit” and signified that “the honeymoon period and feel good factor was over”, the unwavering support of the Sunderland faithful struck Keane.
“I’ll always remember the Sunderland fans at Stoke after the game. The away fans’ enclosure is near the tunnel, and they gave me a great send off, even though we had just been beaten.”
Sunderland then recorded late wins against Barnsley and Hull. Despite inconsistencies, there were increasing signs that Keane was fostering a strong team spirit. Wallace scored the winning goal in injury time at the KC Stadium, and was subsequently sent off for removing his shirt in celebration in front of the fans. The relationship between the two, which had been fractured during the 2005/06 relegation season, had been firmly mended in a short space of time.
“I just don't seem to be able to help myself when I see all the fans going mental,” said Wallace after the game. “When you see all the fans jumping around, you just want to get in amongst it. The lads have told me that I'm like a little kid. The emotion was even greater because the goal came so late.”
But they were brought back down to earth with a bang yet again. The ecstasy of the Barnsley and Hull victories was eroded after back-to-back defeats to Cardiff and Norwich. Promotion was described as a “dim prospect” by The Times’ George Caulkin as Sunderland headed into November.
There was still plenty of work to be done to take the club back to the Promised Land.