One of the many reasons the 2006-07 season holds such a special place in my heart is just how close that campaign came to being a complete disaster.
Losing your first five fixtures in all competitions is catastrophic in any circumstance, but when it follows an infamous record-breaking relegation, the situation feels utterly hopeless.
Sunderland managed just 15 points in a tortuous Premier League campaign. Beating the previous record of 19 points we’d set just three years before.
One of the most troubling aspects of that relegation was that a lack of ability rather than effort undid our hopes of retaining our top flight status. It felt like Sunderland had hit a ceiling, and despite a change of ownership the club looked doomed in its status as a yo-yo club.
Few games remain as strongly etched in my memory as Sunderland’s 3-1 defeat at Roots Hall to a newly promoted Southend United team. That punishing loss in Southend is the loudest I’ve heard the Mackem faithful sing: “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”, and had me wondering just how bad things could get, and just how long it would be until I next saw a Sunderland team play with confidence, let alone win again.
Roy Keane with strong-backing from Niall Quinn didn’t just turn the mood and results around, he injected a level of notoriety and positivity into the club that has never been replicated since.
Quinn was roundly mocked for sacking himself after another embarrassing loss in that five-game streak, this time in the league cup to Bury who were bottom of League Two, in a game which meant red-carded Arnau Rieira’s Sunderland career was dead on arrival despite the Spaniard’s Barcelona B background. The press were quick to jump on our former talismanic striker’s promises of a “world class” manager that was set to replace him, but those comments were soon forgotten once Keane signed on the dotted line.
The Premier League’s greatest captain taking charge of one of the best supported teams in the nation was an unmissable story even before we started winning.
Sunderland Til I Die airing at a time where there’s no live sports meant for two weeks the national spotlight was largely on Sunderland AFC in a way it hasn’t been since the first season aired. When Keane arrived, Sunderland were a big deal every week.
Keane’s celebrity married with Sunderland fans’ passion and the club’s potential meant outside of the ‘Big Four’ in the Premier League few teams got the Sunday morning column inches or airtime on Sky Sports News that Sunderland enjoyed.
With Keane ominously watching on from the stands soon after his announcement as manager, the Black Cats comfortably beat a promotion chasing West Brom team.
The sense that things were going to turn around and turn around quickly, truly took hold after Keane’s first game in the dugout a hard-fought win at Derby County. Armed with a host of new signings and riding a wave of optimism the Premier League winning captain inspired Sunderland to a 2-1 comeback.
Beyond the sense of hysteria and excitement that surrounded Roy Keane’s debut outing as a professional manager. I best remember the game for it being the first, but far from last, moment where Ross Wallace forgot the new rule meaning you get booked if you take your shirt off after scoring. Nonetheless the Scottish winger’s winner was excellent, low and powerful across Stephen Bywater. Equally the celebrations in the stands were sensational, within 90 minutes a years’ worth of losing had been erased from the memories of Sunderland fans, as the Wearside faithful had a sense of belief in their football team again.
The organised chaos and unpredictability that was a constant throughout Keane’s tenure is best highlighted by his wacky, but effective deadline day spending spree. David Connolly, Wallace, Graham Kavanagh, Dwight Yorke, Liam Miller and Stanislav Varga all arrived on August 31.
By adding a mix of experienced internationals and promising youngsters from some of the biggest clubs in world football Keane completely changed the dressing room dynamic at the Stadium of Light.
Not only did the Irishman add players with the necessary quality to launch a promotion campaign, but he forced those who remained from the relegation season to raise their level at a squad now stocked with great options at every position.
After two games it was obvious this was a completely different Sunderland. The combination of the confidence the team gained from actually winning a couple football matches, combined with new quality players improving the lineups Sunderland could field, made a huge difference. But most importantly, the team looked and felt different as they were being led by a manager that has won at the highest level, this was seen in a 3-0 victory at Elland Road in match two.
It’s easy to forget the team started to stumble after two great initial results under the new boss. Keane had to find out how best to use a deep, borderline bloated squad. Danny Dichio was among the scorers for Preston North End in a humbling 4-1 defeat, and Tony Pulis’ Stoke City got the better of Keane in our next fixture as Sunderland endured an unpredictable Autumn.
That was the story for the first few months of Keane’s reign. For every major statement-building win - like our 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in front of 40,000, where youngster Grant Leadbitter scored his first ever Sunderland goal, an excellent half volley - there were tough losses against Cardiff City and Norwich City.
In December Keane had to deal with his first real media storm just as results had started to pick up. The Black Cats were unbeaten in five when a sex tape surfaced involving three first teamers: Ben Alnwick, Liam Lawrence and Chris Brown, performing sex acts with an unnamed teenage woman.
Lawrence had already been sent out on loan to Stoke City after falling out with the gaffer. Brown, despite scoring the first goal of the Keane era at Derby, had also slipped down the pecking order prior to the video’s emergence. The former Republic of Ireland captain had settled on rotating Daryl Murphy, Stephen Elliott, David Connolly and Dwight Yorke up top, meaning Brown was on the outside looking in.
Alnwick - despite being an England Under 21 international was also already outside the first team picture - lost his spot to Darren Ward after shipping four goals at Preston in October.
By January they were all gone. Alnwick was sold in a deal worth up to £1.3 million, with Marton Fulop joining our ranks as part of the deal. Brown returned £350,000 to the club after being snapped up by Norwich. The fact none of the infamous three played for Sunderland again, might explain why this incident remains an afterthought in an otherwise wonderful season.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment or match when Sunderland went from a dangerous mid-table team capable of beating anyone and morphed into rising promotion contenders. Keane highlighted a 2-2 draw with Burnley in his second autobiography The Second Half as the pivotal game. A match where a late goal from Leadbitter and an injury time stunner from Connolly rescued a point. Burnley had led at Turf Moor due to a brace from a young Kyle Lafferty, with Keane conceding the hosts deserved all three points that afternoon.
Whatever Keane saw that day Sunderland lost two of their next three, suffering a disappointing 1-0 loss at Crystal Palace, before following up a big win against Leeds on boxing day in front of a bumper crowd, by drawing a blank again in a hungover 1-0 home loss to Preston.
The December 30th loss to Preston meant Sunderland went into the New Year 12th, 16 points off the top spot, ten short of automatic promotion and six points off the play-offs with just 20 games left, a Championship title looked well out of reach.
January acted as the catalyst for a ridiculous five months. The team went unbeaten that month, winning three from four conceding only twice, both goals came in a 4-2 victory away at Sheffield Wednesday.
Of equal importance to the Black Cats’ improvement on the pitch was the ambition Quinn and Keane showed off it. The January transfer window saw the arrival of crucial first teamers who played vital roles in our unlikely Championship triumph.
Danny Simpson and Jonny Evans upgraded our defence, Carlos Edwards became our heroic wonder-goal scoring terminator, whilst both Stern John and Anthony Stokes boosted Keane’s options up front. The signing of Stokes was a real coup at the time at just 18, the Irishman had gone on a serious goal-scoring binge in the Scottish Premiership bagging 14 in 16 matches, and could easily have moved to a Premier League squad.
For all the fun of the first few months of Keane’s time in charge of Sunderland what truly separates this season from others, at least for this writer, is what happened in February and beyond.
Following a karmic 4-0 victory against Southend United which showed just how far Sunderland had come under Keane. The Wearsiders faced three consecutive fixtures against the top three. A dominant start to 2007 meant Keane’s men entered this run-in already in the play-off spots, now just seven points behind first. Three wins and automatic promotion was not out of the question.
A Carlos Edwards screamer (that’s somehow even better than you remember) was unfortunately cancelled out by a DJ Campbell goal for Birmingham City at the death. But that draw didn’t halt Sunderland’s momentum.
The late Liam Miller famously flicked home a last-minute winner to see off Derby in a 2-1 win, with a goal that matches any in the history of the Stadium of Light for the relief and raw emotion it stirred.
A surprisingly comfortable 2-1 win at the Hawthorns pulled Sunderland level on points with West Brom, and just one point short of the promotion spots and within three of league-leaders Birmingham. Sunderland’s tough run-in had brought seven out of nine points and a sense watching on from the stands that this team were almost invincible. Now all Keane’s men had to do was replicate their recent form and the Premier League awaited; the Championship’s best couldn’t halt this side’s ridiculous momentum.
Keane’s lack of tolerance for complacency and clear authority over his squad was best exemplified in our next match away at Barnsley. First-teamers Stokes, Fulop and Tobias Hysen were punished for being late for the team coach’s departure for Oakwell and were left at home. All three would have been in contention for the Irishman’s 16-man squad, but Keane wouldn’t compromise on his high standards. The matchup was also a great showcase of our squad depth, we ran out 2-0 winners with Leadbitter and Connolly scoring.
Crazily, despite picking up 10 points from a possible 12 in our next four matches, it wasn’t until the Easter Bank Holiday that Sunderland finally reached the top spot. The fashion in which Sunderland went top typified the entire season. Trailing nearing the final ten minutes, we levelled through another top corner bullet from Edwards. Leadbitter arrowed in the winner from 25 yards, two spectacular goals delivered when it truly mattered. Watching Leadbitter’s strike zoom past Bartosz Bialkowski like a missile remains a standout memory from a ridiculously fun season.
Promotion was now in the squad’s hands with just four games to go, given the team hadn’t lost in the league in 2007, it looked like a formality.
A nervy win at home to Queens Park Rangers was settled by another excellent long-range winner from Leadbitter, but was coupled with disaster. A 3-1 defeat at Colchester United meant we needed to win our last two games to guarantee automatic promotion.
First up was a Friday night match at home to Burnley, which ended up being arguably the most entertaining game the Stadium of Light’s ever seen. It remains a top tier rewatch among other classic Sunderland content on YouTube.
Much like the season as a whole it’s the sense of being surprised over and over again which gives this game it’s legendary status. When Connolly stepped up to take a penalty midway through the first-half to potentially put Sunderland 2-0 up, it looked promising. Following Murphy’s early tap-in maybe, just maybe we were going to win with ease and put ourselves within touching distance of promotion.
But that’s not the Sunderland way, plus Bryan Jenson had other ideas. The Burnley stopper telegraphed Connolly’s spot kick and parried past the righthand corner. Momentum switched instantly. A Darren Ward error gave ex-Black Cat Andy Gray, the chance to level from the penalty spot. He did, 1-1.
Forgotten to history, Wade Elliott scored a ridiculous goal - a full on thunderbastard from 30 plus yards that flew into the top corner. All of a sudden Keane’s men were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Instead this game will be remembered for Connolly’s redemption and more magic from Edwards. Thankfully Sunderland didn’t have time to get nervous. Minutes after Elliot’s wonder strike, a great pass in behind the full back from Miller released Edwards into the Burnley box, his excellent first touch drew Jenson out, he poked beyond the keeper who tripped Edwards with his fingertips, penalty Sunderland.
Connolly stepped up again and double-bluffed Jenson, the keeper went left early, the striker smashed his penalty into the bottom right corner, same side just with much more anger and authority.
If you’ve got this far into this feature then you already know what happens next. Murphy released Edwards away on the righthand side and from 30 yards out, barely in line with the 18-yard-box Edwards unleashed a spectacular strike. Through legs his shot raced across and sped up like a bullet into the top corner. Arguably the most iconic goal scored in our new stadium made it 3-2 and sealed the points.
Sunderland didn’t have to sweat a final day trip to Luton just two days later Palace beat Derby at Selhurst park meaning Sunderland couldn’t be caught and would be returning to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
With promotion secured Kenilworth Road was carnage. Out of a near capacity 10,000 plus crowd Mackems were littered all across corners of the ground. Fans sprinted from the home end to the away area such was their desperation to join in the party. Each one of Sunderland’s five goals were celebrated by Sunderland fans in the home end who’d given up on watching the game incognito.
Birmingham City lost to Preston that day meaning Sunderland finished the season as champions. The swaggering 5-0 win was the perfect way to sign off the most memorable, enjoyable Sunderland campaign of the past 15 years. Sunderland were champions and with Keane in command there was no chances we’d be pushovers in the Premier League next year.
Failed transfers, bad managers, director of football models came and went in the years following and Sunderland never truly matched their potential in the ten years in the Premier League that followed. But for that one season Sunderland were big time and looked ready to take on and beat all comers, and for that reason 2006-07 remains my favourite season.