What was Roy Keane’s greatest achievement at Sunderland?
He stopped the rot, and that was good.
Then he got us promoted – as champions.
But greater still, he kept us in the Premier League.
Sunderland’s continuity in form following the end of the 2005-2006 season and the start of the 2006-2007 one was similar to the way Karate Kid II bizarrely followed straight on from the end of Karate Kid I.
Did you see it? Mr Miyagi hadn’t even got out of the car park of the All Valley Karate Tournament before he was hoisted back into the sequel.
Well, we lost a lot in 2005-2006 and just kept going when the next season began.
Keane put an end to this.
Even that game we won 2-0 under Quinn before Keane took over was under the watchful eye of the new manager.
Without Keane, I have always presumed we would have stopped the rot. Under any manager we would have, at the least, plateaued out to a season of mediocrity – so I thought.
Things are different now.
As for going up: we’d been promoted three times in the last 11 seasons and each time as champions. There was nothing unique about this achievement.
But staying up? That was really something. Emotionally battered by two 20th place finishes with the meagrest of points hauls, it was difficult to be too optimistic going into the 2007-2008 campaign.
But Keane kept us up.
That was his greatest achievement, setting up a decade of premiership football for Sunderland.
And the moment I realised he could do it was the moment Andy Reid smashed in the 90th-minute winner versus West Ham.
I had been at Aston Villa the previous week. Villa were having a good season but we beat them. Michael Chopra scored on 83 minutes and what followed was A-grade hug-a-stranger-euphoria. The game ended 1-0.
I was living near Brum and a friend from Madagascar, Michel, who had previously seen us draw 2-2 with Blues earlier in the season, getting wind of said euphoria, asked if we could go up to see the West Ham game the next week.
He also asked if he could bring another friend from Madagascar.
I managed to get tickets and (probably) secured my place in SAFC history by bringing the most people from Madagascar ever, to a Sunderland game.
The brilliant Stat Cat tells me there were 45,690 people at this game. This meant we did not have the option of buying twenty-rows-back, centre-seats. We were two rows from the front, getting rained on.
George McCartney played... for them. I know, it’s hazy, isn’t it? Anton Ferdinand also.
Jonny Evans starred for us.
Keane’s success from 2006-2008 rested on Evans significantly. He had been on loan to us the previous season and again from January 2008.
Sometimes you debate how good a player is. With Evans, his class was clear to all from the start of his ‘loan career’ and up until the end of it.
And yet West Ham’s goal, coming in the 18th minute from Freddie Ljungberg, was the result of Evans being pulled out of position and our well-organised defence suddenly looking vulnerable.
This sort of confusion happens more regularly these days and often we can get away with it. It only had to happen once then and West Ham scored.
Sunderland responded well. We pressured them and made chances – and Kenwynne Jones equalised on 29 minutes. He played a lot that season, Kenwynne; he only scored seven, but he was a presence up front and with him in the team, you always felt we could score.
It was a well contested first half, played out before an expectant crowd, including a good number in the away end.
One incident I remember most clearly is a shot from someone for them, perhaps Carlton Cole, sailing over, into the top corner of our net, and Craig Gordon making the most brilliant, acrobatic, aerial save, tipping it over the bar.
From our not-great corner seats, close to the action, and able to appreciate the real-time speed of things we could see just how good a save it was.
The window of opportunity for Gordon to tip the ball away was infinitesimal, but his timing was perfect.
Sunderland continued to press in the second half.
Danny Collins had a good chance cleared and Daryl Murphy missed a very good opportunity. Kieran Richardson had played well but was replaced with Carlos Edwards for the final 20 minutes.
Andy Reid had provided much of the creativity in midfield.
Reid is a salutary example of the truth that the shape of a player does not predict his efficacy. He would never have won a cross-fit competition, but he worked and was a wonderfully able footballer.
He is fondly remembered as one of those rare types: a game-changer.
Some time towards the death of things and the score still creaking on the hinge of 1-1, Carlos Edwards – not far from me – crossed the ball in to see Anton Ferdinand bobble it off his head backwards. The ball fell to Andy Reid, inside the box, who hit it before it hit the ground.
At times your brain works very fast.
Seeing the ball drop to Reid, and processing just how good he was, it was clear it was going in before he’d even hit it.
The Madagascar Supporters Branch were already about four foot in the air even before the ball hit the back of the net.
You score in the 90th minute, you win the game, and a short time later you realise, surely we are going to stay up now.
The crowds surging back towards the town over the bridge that night continued to sing.
What a great memory.
It seems a long way off now: the success and the physical togetherness of so many people. But we keep on.
Dum spiro, spero: while I breathe, I hope.