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Niall Quinn’s taxi cabs and Keano’s title win: 06/07 Championship season in quotes (part five)

In this, the fifth and final installment of our series taking you on a trip down memory lane, we look at how Roy Keane masterminded the most unlikely of title wins.

Luton Town v Sunderland Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

(Part one) - The Return of the Quinn: Click here!

(Part two) - Keano arrives: Click here!

(Part three) - Deadline Day bedlam: Click here!

(Part four) - Sex tape scandal: Click here!

Roy Keane, brought up under the strict regimes of Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson, gave ample evidence yesterday that his own managerial career will be forged in the likeness of those uncompromising giants.

As Sunderland prepared to pursue another three points in their campaign to return to the Premiership, Keane did not flinch from dropping three players as punishment for missing the team bus on Friday afternoon. Under Keane, there is room for only one boss.

Malcolm Folley, March 11 2007

Reinforced by January signings, Roy Keane’s Sunderland were aiming to “gate-crash the top six.”

They achieved that with a run of five wins in six following the close of the window, including victory over West Brom in their previous fixture. They were now in 4th, just six points behind 2nd place Derby, with a favourable fixture at relegation-threatened Barnsley to follow.

Keane had established throughout the season that he expected his players to adhere to his high standards of professionalism in all facets of their role; there was no room for distractions and misdemeanours.

But Sunderland would have to play Barnsley without three players; Anthony Stokes, Tobias Hysen and Marton Fulop – dubbed the ‘Barnsley Three.’ They weren’t injured, nor were they suspended. Rather, they were left behind after missing the team bus.

Keane told reporters that players “had to be on time” and “respect your team-mates.”

I have given players the benefit of the doubt, once, twice but not three times. I want people to take notice of what we're trying to do and I won't let one or two spoil that.

He felt that Sunderland had been “seen as a soft touch” and “an easy ride” for certain players. It was a decision that was “fully endorsed” by chairman Niall Quinn.

Regardless, the team was professional and ran out 2-0 winners in front of more than 8,000 travelling fans, which goal-scorer Grant Leadbitter described as “the best away support I have ever seen.” Playing in front of these huge crowds were giving the players “an even bigger lift.”

The ‘Barnsley Three’ were soon pardoned, with Keane preferring not to dwell on any indiscretion. They were “good lads,” and the situation was “unfortunate,” but they’d “made a genuine mistake” and he was “not going to crucify them.” Besides, there was the small matter of a promotion run-in to be concerned with.

Barnsley v Sunderland
More than 8,000 travelling fans saw Sunderland win at Oakwell despite the absence of the 'Barnsley Three.'
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A succession of wins over rivals Cardiff, Wolves and Southampton had fans dreaming of an immediate return to the big time. The players were feeling confident too.

Danny Simpson told The Sunderland Echo:

The games can't come quickly enough. At the moment, we'd love to play every other day. Everyone's flying. We've had a feeling in the squad that we can win every game. We've taken a lot of confidence from the run.

We can see where hard work can get us and the manager has been a big reason for it. He tells us that he feels he has the best squad and fills us with confidence whenever we play.

The meeting with Cardiff was another important chapter in the relationship that had developed between club and fans. Jubilant supporters were ready to depart Bristol Airport, but concerns were raised about their behaviour while readying for take-off. It was claimed that they had been too rowdy. The flight was eventually cancelled, with passengers left stranded until the following day – until Quinn stepped in and arranged for a fleet of vehicles to take fans back to Wearside.

The chairman “vehemently oppose[d] the airline's view that there was disruptive behaviour on board the plane,” describing the mood as “humorous; everyone was in good spirits after our fine victory.” Quinn and his staff were “faced with a situation where our fans were stranded and needed assistance.” They were “happy to arrange transport back to the North East; the safety and wellbeing of fans was paramount.”

It was a gesture that left fans astounded and reaffirmed Quinn’s legendary status. But it was symbolic of the way that the relationship between club and fans had been re-unified under him and Keane.

Sunderland had climbed to the top spot for the first time all season following the aforementioned win at Southampton, and maintained that position with a follow-up victory over QPR. They were 17 games unbeaten going into match-day 44; a trip to Colchester should have been relatively straightforward. But Sunderland lost 3-1 – they were “taught a lesson.”

“We got back to 1-1, and a draw wouldn’t have been bad,” Keane wrote in his autobiography. “But we were on a run, so I thought: ‘Fucking go for it.’ We just kept going, which had helped us in other games, but not this one.” It was a reminder that despite their superb turnaround, they were not infallible.

It was a bitter disappointment for Keane, who wanted to be able to celebrate promotion in front of the home fans, providing they beat Burnley next time out. But the Colchester set-back made that impossible, with rivals Derby playing the day after Sunderland hosted the Clarets. Fans couldn’t celebrate just yet, but they’d be left with a memory to last a lifetime.

A season-best crowd of almost 45,000 fans witnessed a rollercoaster ride. Daryl Murphy had put Keane’s side in the lead, but Burnley capitalised on a David Connolly missed penalty to lead 2-1. Connolly atoned, converting a penalty, before Carlos Edwards netted one of the greatest goals in club history.

Sunderland clear it to Grant Leadbitter. Infield slightly. Murphy; he’s only got one man in support. He’s got four men back in defence. He finds Carlos Edwards, the second in support. Long range effort…

OH! OH! OH! OH my goodness me!

That was ABSOLUTELY amazing! Absolutely amazing Carlos Edwards!

About 80 yards out - maybe a hundred - he was on the banks of the Wear! He pulled the trigger, he nearly burst the net. I've burst a blood vessel or 10. What a way to get back in the lead!

Carlos Edwards' fifth of the season, and the best you will ever, ever see. Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!

- Simon Crabtree

Speaking to Roker Report, Edwards said: “It all happened so quick. As soon as I received the ball from Daryl I thought I could shimmy a little or something, but what made my mind up was my first touch; it was as perfect as I could have hoped. I had a little glance, got my head down - I don’t think I’ve ever hit a ball so well. I didn’t know how to celebrate. I was thinking to myself, ‘Jesus Christ!’”

It was unknown at the time, but it was ultimately the goal that sealed promotion. Derby’s defeat at Crystal Palace confirmed that Sunderland would be promoted back to the Premier League, completing a remarkable turnaround following Keane’s arrival.

Keane was “buzzing,” but “would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had happened just after a match, especially at the Stadium of Light.” He wanted to celebrate with the fans.

Quinn was more expressive, describing the achievement as a “terrific time for the people of Sunderland, especially after the season they had last year when they were rock bottom.” It validated his decision to appoint Keane as manager.

“Knowing him as a player, being around him and knowing the level of focus he has I should not have been surprised by what has happened," he said. “But I would be telling lies if I said I knew the way it was going to turn out. I thought he was capable of turning this club around but I thought it would take him more time to prove it. What we didn't foresee was how good he is at his job. I’ve really enjoyed watching him work.”

Promotion was sealed, but Sunderland travelled to Luton knowing that they had to better Birmingham’s result to win the title. And they did, with a 5-0 thumping, while Steve Bruce’s side slipped up at Preston. It was the icing on the cake for Keane, who, in keeping with his mentality throughout the season, downplayed his side’s achievement.

“It's nice to have something to show for our efforts this season,” he said. “It's finished the season off nicely and if we hadn't have won today, I'd have been pretty annoyed.”

His players were more communicative. Dean Whitehead said that it was “a great feeling” to “lead a big club like this back to where it belongs,” while Ross Wallace said that he was “proud” and “buzzing” to “do it for the fans.”

Luton Town v Sunderland
Sunderland beat Luton 5-0 to win the Championship title on the last day of the season.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Keane saved his words for the Football League, describing their decision to not immediately present the trophy to his players a “disgrace” and a “PR disaster,” “particularly with all the supporters travelling down here and paying all their money.”

The players would get their hands on the trophy the following day; the club had organised an open-top bus journey and a civic reception to celebrate their achievement. But Keane cancelled the public celebration, explaining that he’d be “ashamed of my life.”

“I think it’s right to celebrate achievements,” he reasoned. “But to celebrate promotion a year after we’d been relegated was too much. It wasn’t as if we were a small club being promoted for the first time in twenty years.”

It was a decision that disappointed members of the squad, Stephen Elliott explained to Sportdec.

We were really over the moon as we had got off to an absolute shocker that season, which made winning the league all that sweeter.

The excitement for our big day out soon dwindled when we realised that Roy had decided to cancel the parade and the civic reception that was planned.

It was a bit of a disappointment to say the least, as there was not nearly as much buzz in the squad when we received the trophy in front of our wives, than there would have been in front of thousands of supporters.

I understood his reasoning, but there were players in that squad who had never experienced what it was like to win a trophy before that season. I'm sure they would have loved to have experienced the buzz of what parading the trophy through a packed out city was like.

Darren Ward told me he was absolutely devastated that the bus parade had been cancelled. He was in the twilight of his career and was hoping to share the moment with his kids and family as he had never won anything before then.

Keane later admitted that “I understand that it would have been more for the supporters and the players and their families.” But it was too late to dwell - Sunderland had a Premier League campaign to prepare for. And thus began a rollercoaster ten-season ride in the top flight.

Sunderland now find themselves in a situation similar to that of 2006 – let’s hope that there’s a similar outcome in May too.

All material sourced via Lexis Library and 'The Second Half' by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle.

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