(Part one) - The Return of the Quinn: Click here!
(Part two) - Keano arrives: Click here!
(Part three) - Deadline Day bedlam: Click here!
Sunderland’s prospects of an immediate return to the Premier League had been described as “dim.” Defeats to Cardiff and Norwich as The Black Cats headed into November meant that Roy Keane’s side had lost nine of their 16 games (and five out of 11 under his management). But a run of three wins and two draws put them back on track, until a scandal threatened to undo the squad’s hard work.
“Shame of SAFC stars in sex-romp video” read the Sunderland Echo headline. Ben Alnwick, Liam Lawrence and Chris Brown were identified as being involved in a sexual recording with a teenage woman. The emergence of the story had the potential to cause disruption to and distraction within the squad; at the very least it was an embarrassment to the club.
Keane, who later described being “annoyed” at the situation, wisely refused to comment publicly, preferring to deal with the situation internally. There was little room for distractions – he had football matches to win. In an interview with Roker Report, Stephen Elliott clarified that “Roy never spoke about it because we had a league to win and I was just concentrating on that. I think Roy had the same attitude - it was dealt with internally and we went on trying to get the promotion.”
Keane was in fact “upset” after “Niall insisted that they wouldn’t play [against Luton the next day].”
Lawrence had joined Stoke on loan a month earlier, but Brown was “important” to Keane as “he was in my team [for Luton]. They hadn’t done anything illegal, so I said I was going to play them.”
He “wasn’t condoning their behaviour,” but he “was their manager, not their father, or judge and jury,” and he had a football match coming up that he “had to try and win. That was my job.”
Ultimately, the ‘scandal’ proved to have little affect on the pitch, as Keane and Quinn intended; Sunderland ran out 2-1 winners to register a third straight victory. It was a sign of the squad’s professional standards.
They then travelled to Turf Moor, where Keane’s men drew 2-2 with Burnley. It was a result that he described as a “big turning point.” Burnley led 2-0 before goals from Grant Leadbitter and David Connolly rescued a point.
“We were 2-0 down and we were awful,” Keane wrote in 2014. “We came away with a point, but we could have been beaten five or six-nil.”
But importantly, “we’d shown another side of our team, the fighting side. We kept giving ourselves mountains to climb, but the players were climbing them. We were fighting and scrapping.”
It had become clear that Keane had instilled a never-give-up, never-say-die spirit in his squad. A symbiotic relationship had developed between the players and the fans, who travelled in their thousands to support the club on the road.
The fans’ celebrations struck a chord with Keane, who “showed a clip to the players because it had been on the news.”
Dave [Connolly] had jumped into the stand to celebrate with them. One or two of them fell out, head over heels onto the pitch. It was creating a story that we were all in this together – the players, the fans, the club. ‘We’re Sunderland and we never give up. We stay to the end.’
Connolly told reporters after the game that “it would have been a shame for them to go all the way there and watch us roll over. I’ve not had the opportunity to go near the fans when I've scored - they always seem to be far away. I went to them and it was worth a booking.”
The Irish striker praised the fans for “giving us life,” adding that the players could hear them signing before the game and how it drove them on throughout. The result would see the squad head into the Christmas period “full of confidence” and targeting a play-off place.
But the manager was keen to play down expectations, maintaining that they “weren’t ready for the play-offs yet” and that certain players “weren’t up to the challenge.”
“If the board were getting a bit giddy, and thinking that we had all the players we needed, I was reminding them that we needed a few more,” Keane reflects. “I wasn’t playing games; we did need the players if we were going to go further.”
Keane was probably right; his side lost two of their next three games as Sunderland finished 2006 in 12th place. There’d been a marked improvement since the start of the season, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
Sunderland started the New Year with a 2-0 victory away to Leicester. It was the day, according to Keane, that “we took off; the day that our surge to the top started,” although he “didn’t know it yet.” But he began to wonder if they could kick on and get into the play-off positions. Automatic promotion seemed optimistic, but the play-offs would represent incredible progress.
There were still inconsistencies. Victory at Leicester was followed by a “disappointing” FA Cup defeat to Preston and a 1-0 win over Ipswich. The side then travelled to Hillsborough to face Sheffield Wednesday, with Keane aiming to “gate-crash the top six.” A victory, provided other results went their way, could see them break into the play-off spots for the first time that season.
Before the game, Heavy Metal band Saxon had urged supporters to participate in an air-guitar world record attempt during half time. But “unfortunately for the old rockers,” according to a poster on the ReadyToGo forum, “Sunderland were 2-0 up and the home crowd weren't really in the mood.”
"While the band thrashed around pretending to play guitar they were greeted with boos and shouts of ‘fuck off’ from the Wednesday fans, whilst the Sunderland fans sang ‘Keano’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’ for the whole half time interval.”
There was no head-banging in the stands, but there certainly was in the dressing room after the game. Sunderland were leading 3-0 with ten minutes to go but allowed Wednesday to score two in five minutes to set up a nervy finish. Carlos Edwards ensured the victory, but Keane was left raging.
“I nearly had a fucking heart attack,” he recalls. “We should never have let them come back. I told them that it wasn’t good enough and that there had to be consistent standards. They couldn’t let the other team back into the game; they might get away with it against Wednesday, but not against better teams.”
Keane thought that his side should have scored more, and was unimpressed with the general performance. Worse still, he believed that his players’ poor play had encouraged Wednesday’s comeback.
To some, that may have seemed an unnecessary criticism, particularly with victory lifting the club to 8th place and one point behind Stoke in 6th. But it was symbolic of the attitude that Keane held towards the job and the standards that he expected from his squad. His players seemed to agree with his assessment. Carlos Edwards told reporters that Keane was “right to be upset” and that “it could be damaging [to our promotion hopes] if we keep conceding goals like that.”
Nonetheless, Sunderland had momentum, going unbeaten in their next 14 games. January arrivals certainly helped. Manchester United youngsters Danny Simpson and Jonny Evans, who had spent the first half of the season in the Belgian second division, were signed on loan, while Anthony Stokes, Stern John and Carlos Edwards arrived on permanent deals throughout the month.
Evans had excelled in Belgium, and was told by manager Warren Joyce that he “needed to progress further and go back [to England].”
“Roy Keane was a hero of mine,” Evans told Graham Hunter earlier this year. “So I decided to go to Sunderland.”
It proved to be an inspired decision; Sunderland lost just once with Evans in the side. Reflecting on that period in his career, Evans said that he was “spoiled” and that “everything just flowed nicely. Winning the Championship was a fantastic achievement. That was the first trophy that I could really be proud of and it kick-started my career.”
Keane “saw a lot that he liked” in Evans, who “had the qualities of a Manchester United player.”
“For such a young man he was very mature and a born leader.”
Keane was now in control of a squad that he felt could challenge for promotion. They were his players; players with the right qualities and character. Just two points separated Sunderland in 9th and Cardiff in 6th as the season headed into February.
It was time to “gate-crash the top six.”