I have a fascination for patterns in football, little bits of history that influence our way of thinking, our way of perceiving what’s possible. After all, if it’s been done before, it can surely happen again. Most of the time, anyway.
And – maybe more in hope than expectation – Roy Keane’s surge up the table during our 2006-07 season has been a campaign that I keep coming back to as I assess this current season.
Parallel lines? Well, a new manager came in and needed to make an immediate impact. And, while we now look back very fondly on Keane’s time in charge, even though he took over after just five league games we didn’t get into the top ten until the turn of the year.
Parallel lines? We made a few astute signings in January which helped set us up for a strong run to the championship. And, while Lee Johnson’s signings may not have hit the ground running as yet, an on loan central defender has found their way into the team and, much like Jonny Evans did in 2007, Sanderson looks an assured, calming presence.
Parallels lines? Fourteen years ago, we were 10 points off the leaders with fourteen games left to play – and hadn’t yet officially entered the play-offs, although our result the previous week, an away win at Plymouth, had put us level with Cardiff, on the same points, goal difference, goals scored and goals against.
We returned to the Stadium of Light to face Southend, the team who’d beaten us in a horrendous afternoon at Roots Hall earlier in the season (Arnau debut, Jon Stead scored, played four, lost four).
This was a very different Sunderland team that took on the Shrimpers, however, with no fewer than 10 changes to the line up.
Marton Fulop had replaced ‘the new Jimmy Montgomery’ Ben Alnwick.
A defence of Stephen Wright, Kenny Cunningham, Neill Collins and Robbie Elliott had been superseded by Danny Simpson, Nyron Nosworthy, Jonny Evans and Danny Collins.
In midfield, only Dean Whitehead remained – on this occasion Leadbitter, Stephen Elliott and Rory Delap had been replaced by Carlos Edwards, Liam Miller and Toby Hysen, while up front David Connolly and Stern John started, as opposed to the Stead-Murphy combination that had started at Roots Hall.
To be fair to Leadbitter and Murphy they both made significant contributions that season – the less said about the others, however, the better.
Keane had inherited a side with a heart of glass – and turned it into one with a heart of steel.
Sunderland: Fulop, Simpson, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins, Edwards, Whitehead, Miller, Hysen, Connolly, John. Subs: Ward, Wallace, Leadbitter, Yorke, Stokes.
All in all, it was a comfortable, confident and compelling afternoon, as Sunderland showed the recent run of results – five wins and a draw in six games – was no flash in the pan. A home game against a team in the relegation zone is usually one of those games we’d come unstuck, but this was different. Keane had brought a new mentality to the club, and it was a winning one.
We took an early lead – Connolly firing into an empty net after great work down the right by Edwards – and before the quarter hour mark ticked over we were two up, Toby Hysen leaving his full back on his arse before assuredly striking the ball past Flahaven and into the net.
It’s a source of regret that Connolly and particularly Hysen didn’t get the chance to play in the Premier League with us the following season. Connolly was such a natural goalscorer, and Hysen had a touch of class – I actually think Hysen would have been more suited to Premier League football than Championship, but evidently Roy didn’t agree on either score. And I wouldn’t want to argue with him.
Stern John grabbed his first goal for the club towards the end of the second half – netting after Whitehead had broken into the box and hit the post – while the Trinidadian emphatically swept in a Miller cross for his second and Sunderland’s fourth a minute later.
Four nil it ended, Sunderland were in the play off positions, and it was a stark and welcome reminder just how quickly things can change in football.
From the 13 games remaining we took 34 points from a possible 39, and slowly hunted down Derby, West Brom and Birmingham to stealthily move into second in mid-March, and top in early April.
And, with only a nine point deficit this season to make up, and five more games to do it in, promotion is possible – one way or another.
Relive the goals from Sunderland 4-0 Southend here!
After the game, Keane said:
We have squeezed into the play-offs but the time to reflect and judge us will be at the end of the season.
We have been playing catch-up and hopefully we will have a cracking game at Birmingham on Tuesday.
There is a good feeling among the players and that is a good tonic for me as a manager. We scored four goals, should have scored more and have kept a clean sheet.
While his Southend counterpart Steve Tilson told the BBC:
It was always going to be a tough game for us coming here.
Credit to Sunderland they were better than us and looking at their team today, they look certainties for promotion.
Sunderland are the best side we have played for a long time, and that includes us beating Birmingham at their place, but what we must do if we are to stay up is win our home games.