The early days of the 2006 season had many parallels to today. We were in the doldrums. Hope was in short supply, and we’d just suffered what many considered to be one of the worst results in our club’s history, having being knocked out of the League Cup by Bury.
The hope that was in evidence emanated from Niall Quinn; although his ambitious dual role of chairman/manager wasn’t too successful from an on the field perspective.
In rode the ‘world class’ Roy Keane and made a whole host of deadline day signings which bolstered the team no end – and on we went to win the Championship at a canter.
Well, at least that’s how it may seem in hindsight. In reality, it was much more of a slog than that.
On this day in 2006, over three months after Keane was appointed, we were sat in 14th position in the Championship table.
While Keane had provoked a response from a team that was sitting rock bottom upon his arrival, it had been slow progress. He certainly didn’t have a magic wand. Seven wins from 15 games had been a marked improvement on our early season form – however the five defeats, including a 1-0 reverse at Carrow Road in November, had caused Keane some frustration.
Looking back, it was mid-November when our form began to pick up – a 3-1 win over
Phil Parkinson’s Geraint Williams’ Colchester was followed by a good away point at Wolves (the McCarthy/Keane reunion) and an even better away victory at QPR before Norwich headed to the north east for their second clash with Sunderland in four week.
Keane was still rotating the team quite heavily at this point in the hope of landing on a line up that hit it off, but on this occasion there were only two changes to the starting XI – Nosworthy (at this point still a right back) and Stan Varga were replaced by Dean Whiteheads (at this point being used as a right back) and the on-loan Lewin Nyatanga – Danny Collins moving from left back to centre back to partner Steve Caldwell.
Sunderland lined up like this:
Ward, Whitehead, Caldwell, Collins, Nyatanga; Kavanagh, Leadbitter, Miller; Elliott (S), Murphy, Wallace. Subs: Fulop, Elliott (R), Hysen, Yorke, Connolly.
For Norwich, they had a former and future Sunderland midfield pairing of Carl Robinson and Dickson Etuhu, while Homes Under the Hammer star Dion Dublin was at the heart of the defence.
In goal, was the nightmare-inducing Lee Camp, who surprisingly had managed to catch the team coach to the game.
In a scrappy, hard-fought game, Sunderland dominated for large spells. Rob Earnshaw almost put the Canaries in the lead towards the end of the game – ex Norwich keeper Ward (a very underrated keeper, for what it’s worth) pulling off a good stop.
Keane’s men went up the other end and Murphy notched the only goal of the game, with a lovely turn and half volley from the edge of the box.
After the match Keane said:
It was very, very scrappy, but I don’t care about that.
I thought we just about deserved it. There were never going to be too many goals, it had one goal written all over it.
It was always going to be difficult and I told the lads they would have to grind it out.
We played well in the week (during the 2-1 win at QPR) and could have scored five or six. This was the other way around.”
It wasn’t the best of performances; it didn’t matter. We’d extended our unbeaten run to five games, and Keane was making a significant impact on the mentality of the team, squad, club and city.
We moved up to 13th in the table by virtue of that win, and our stead progress continued. We lost only three more matches in the whole of the season, and went up as champions.
And, there’s a thread of hope to cling onto when you look at events today. While there many not seem too much to be optimistic about at SAFC at present, the right managerial appointment – combined with a bit of patience – can produce something special.
Hope springs eternal.