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SAFC Teams of the 21st Century: Roy Keane set Sunderland up for a decade in the Premier League

A team built on work rate, passion, and moments of quality. Roy Keane’s Sunderland started Sunderland’s run of ten consecutive season’s in the Premier League. Philip Butler explains what made Keane’s side tick.

West Ham United v Sunderland Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

When Roy Keane was announced as Sunderland manager at the end of August 2006, he took charge of a club recently relegated from the Premier League with a then-record low points tally, in the relegation zone in the Championship and having just undergone a takeover that installed Niall Quinn as Chairman - the man who started the season as manager.

Nine months later, following a five-nil demolition of Luton Town the turnaround was complete and Sunderland were confirmed as champions a week after confirming their promotion to the Premier League.

The next season, the one I am going to focus on, saw Sunderland survive in the top flight, in what would become the first of ten consecutive seasons at the top of the English Football Pyramid.

Luton Town v Sunderland
Nyron Nosrwothy celebrating Sunderland’s Championship title after a win at Luton Town
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Like Steve Bruce’s side a few years later - and indeed like most English teams at this time - Roy Keane’s Sunderland played a 4-4-2 formation in all but a handful of league games.

Craig Gordon, at the time the most expensive British goalkeeper, started in goal behind a varied back four throughout the season. Dean Whitehead frequently played at right back until Phil Bardsley signed from Manchester United in January, similarly Paul McShane and Danny Higginbotham frequently started at the heart of defence until Jonny Evans signed for his second loan spell at the club and became part of the preferred partnership alongside Nyron Nosworthy. Danny Collins was comfortably Keane’s first choice at left back.

Similarly, the personnel in midfield varied throughout the season. Dean Whitehead played in midfield as well as at full back, whilst Dwight Yorke, Dickson Etuhu and Liam Miller were generally battling over the two places in centre midfield. In wide positions, a serious back injury meant Kieron Richardson missed much of the first half of the season, despite surely being a first choice out wide. Andy Reid also only arrived in January, becoming a regular feature in the side after his debut.

The forwards are quite a bit easier to identify. Only Craig Gordon started more games than Kenwyne Jones, and he was most commonly joined up front by Michael Chopra who, along with Daryl Murphy, also played some games in wide midfield.

Like Steve Bruce’s preferred 4-4-2 approach, Sunderland defended deep and narrow, confident that they could cope with the opposition’s crosses into the box since they had the added height of Danny Collins at left back and Dickson Etuhu in midfield with Kenwyne Jones even finding himself defending the penalty box against teams who offered a significant threat from aerial balls.

From this deep position, Sunderland looked to break through the players who could dribble with the ball through midfield. Dickson Etuhu and Kenwyne Jones were both able to pick the ball up in deep positions and shrug off challenges and often ended by winning a free-kick in the opponent’s half, or getting the ball to the wide players before attacking the box from deep.

The role of the full backs depended on who these wide players were. When a natural winger such as Carlos Edwards played on the right, the right-sided full back played a more conservative role with Collins showing more attacking ambition to get past the inverted left winger - most often Andy Reid after his signing in January. When Richardson started on the left, this was inverted with Bardsley - or Whitehead - showing more attacking intent than Collins.

Unsurprisingly, in a team playing with probably Sunderland’s last out-and-out target man up front, the build up play was direct, with a couple of passes at the back only used to create an angle for long balls normally aimed down the channels where Jones could challenge aerially and Chopra could look to get in behind the defence.

Sunderland v Reading
Kenwyne Jones was key to Sunderland’s survival in the Premier League
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Overall, Sunderland during this season were a side built around the hold up play and aerial ability of Kenwyne Jones, who was much more than a static target man. His ability to go past defenders was vastly underrated and something which set him apart from the rest of Sunderland’s fowards that season.

But with start player Jones, and other pockets of genuine quality such as Andy Reid’s left foot and fellow winger Kieron Richardson, this team was all about second balls and work rate.

This reliance on effort and endeavour is likely why the highs of Roy Keane’s first two seasons in management faded following the summer signings of players such as El Hadji Diouf who failed to fit into the team’s adopted style.

As a result, just one month after a historic 2-1 win over Newcastle, Keane resigned with Sunderland again in the relegation zone, though this time in a division higher where they remained until the unfortunate arrival of David Moyes and Martin Bain some nine years later.

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