Roy Keane’s time as Sunderland boss is generally looked upon very favourably. He worked relative wonders in his first season, winning the Championship after taking over a team floundering at the wrong end of the table, and had – probably more importantly – genuinely restored pride in everything to do with the club.
And the two of those factors rightly combined to Keane’s benefit during the opening months of the first season back in the top flight because, prior to our game against a Derby side who were anchored to the bottom of the league (and destined to beat our record low of 15 points by a good 25%) things weren’t looking too crash hot.
Since the stunning 1-0 last minute win over Spurs on the season’s opening day, we’d only managed to trouble the ‘W’ column on one more occasion – Reading at home (on the day we mourned the passing of Ian Porterfield) – and were without a win in eight.
Of the 14 league games up to this point, we’d lost eight – the most recent a spectacular 7-1 reverse to Everton, during which one of Keane’s summer signing’s Paul McShane was horrifically exposed. In truth, his Sunderland career never recovered.
McShane had, strangely enough, retained his place at the heart of the defence for the visit of Derby.
Derby had come up with us via the play offs (Birmingham the other) but had struggled, winning only one game – against Newcastle, naturally – and drawing another three.
In truth, we’d not done that much better. We were on 10 points, and a Derby win would take them within a point of us.
We’d shown no interest at all in changing manager. Keane was as safe as houses.
Derby – on six points – had swung the axe. They’d got rid of Billy Davies, who’d got them promoted, and appointed Paul Jewell in his place.
While McShane kept his place, record £9m signing Craig Gordon didn’t – dropped to the bench in favour of veteran Darren Ward, who’d been a calming influence the season prior.
Also missing out from the team that was walloped at Goodison were Ian Harte, Dwight Yorke, Dixon Etuhu, Michael Chopra – five of Keane’s summer signings demoted in one fell swoop.
In their places came Danny Collins, Ross Wallace, Greg Halford and a certain Andy Cole, who aged 36 had been signed to provide some experience and goals and, well, ended up providing absolutely nothing.
So, a game against a side that have only one win all season, haven’t scored in six and have a new manager... we all know how that usually goes for us.
Well, this time it didn’t. Just.
In the first half we should have gone ahead – Higginbotham almost scored an early header, while Cole slipped with presented with a good scoring opportunity, before heading wide when he should have done better.
And it looked like Derby might make us pay – Ward pulled off a great diving save from a Kenny Miller shot after Higginbotham’s error. The keeper almost went from hero to zero, flapping at the resultant corner – Whitehead’s clearance off the line coming to his rescue.
Kenwyne Jones hit the post just before half time after Leadbitter’s shot had come back out off Bywater – Jones should have done much better – but in truth it was Derby who were in the ascendancy.
So much so, the home team as booed off at half time.
The second half went much the same way, Carlos Edwards showing up brightly while Derby’s Oakley had a shot deflected wide. Cole made way for Chopra – who immediately got in the way of a goal bound Whitehead effort – Liam Miller replaced Leadbitter and Anthony Stokes took the place of Carlos Edwards, who limped off with what transpired to be a broken leg.
While it was Miller who’d scored a late winner on the last occasion the Rams came to Wearside, it was fellow sub Stokes who hooked in at the second attempt after Kenwyne Jones’ header from Miller’s cross was saved by Bywater with the game deep into three minutes of stoppage time.
Keane said after the game:
I’m happy for the players because it’s been a big test for them this week. When you lose 7-1 you’re going to get things written about you and the fans will start asking questions about what’s going on. And the supporters were different class today. There was forty-odd thousand here and a bit of tension as you would expect, but they stayed with the players.
I’m sure a lot left early thinking it had 0-0 written all over it so I’m delighted for the fans, particularly the ones who stayed right to the death, even the ones who were on the pitch celebrating.
He had some rather prophetic words about match winner Stokes, too:
He’s a young man who can go as far as he wants. He could be a top, top player or he could be playing non-League in four years’ time.
He’s got to avoid the pitfalls.
Any in particular?
The Glass Spider.
It was a massive three points for Sunderland, and typified the ‘never say die’ attitude Keane had embedded into the squad – and while the lads stayed up with 39 points and 11 wins, Derby went down with a whimper, failing to win another game.
Saturday 1 December 2007, Stadium of Light, 42,380.
Goal: Stokes ‘90+3
Sunderland: Ward, Halford, Collins, Leadbitter (Miller 83), McShane, Higginbotham, Edwards (Stokes 78), Whitehead, Jones, Cole (Chopra 64) Wallace. Subs not used: Gordon, Harte.
Derby: Bywater, Griffin, McEveley, Oakley, Moore, Davis, Teale (Leacock), Pearson, Howard, Miller (Earnshaw), Barnes (Fagan), Subs not used: Price, Mears.