The build up
Mick McCarthy loved a random signing – or seven – during his time as Sunderland manager. Kevin Cooper, Alan Quinn, Simon Johnson and Colin Cooper were all ‘blink and you’d miss them’ type of signings who barely made their mark.
And, as the promotion campaign of 2005-06 entered its final throes, Mick Mac decided we needed some reinforcements up front.
Earlier on in the season, Kevin Kyle – who’d come on in leaps and bounds during the previous campaign – had picked up a serious injury which ruled him out for a prolonged period of time, and we’d been forced to pair Marcus Stewart upfront with Stephen Elliott. Two good players – very good players at Championship level – but neither had the physicality Kyle naturally had.
In many respects, Kyle’s absence benefited the team – we were forced to play more football to feet, rather than hitting the big man’s head – and we’d climbed the table in style.
After two big away wins at QPR and Wigan, we headed to the Stadium of Light to face Reading, in what – on paper at least – seemed like a home banker.
McCarthy, maybe looking to give us a plan B from the bench in a difficult run in, decided to take action in the transfer market and, on transfer deadline day at the end of March, brought in Brian Deane on a free transfer from Leeds.
Deane, aged 37, had proved to be a formidable opponent for Sunderland throughout his career – at 6’ 3” he offered an obvious aerial threat, but he also had a good touch, could finish, and throughout his career had an athleticism and drive that caused problems. He’d scarred McCarthy’s team only four months earlier, scoring for Leeds in a 3-2 Boxing Day win at the Stadium of Light, and it certainly seemed a case of ‘better with us than against us’. Incidentally, the Leeds team on that day also included former Sunderland player Paul Butler, and future Sunderland players Matthew Kilgallon, David Healey and Martin Woods.
Upon Deane’s arrival, McCarthy said:
Brian will be a terrific addition. He offers us something different.
He’ll thrive on the kind of service we can give him and we’re well aware of the problems he can cause teams.
The lads were top of the table and went into the fixture against Reading, live on Sky, on the back of eight straight wins.
McCarthy named an unchanged team from the one that had defeated Wigan a few days earlier, with Chris Brown again preferred to Stephen Elliott up front. Deane, who’d been an unused sub at Wigan, was again named on the bench.
Sunderland: Myhre, Wright, Breen, Caldwell, McCartney, Lawrence, Whitehead, Robinson, Arca, Brown, Stewart. Subs: Ingham, Collins, Whitley, Elliott, Deane.
The game started in a fashion you’d expect of a team at home on such a good run; Sunderland took the game to Steve Coppell’s team and dominated early proceedings.
Arca’s through ball to Stewart was just too strong for the former Ipswich man to latch on to, while Carl Robinson’s attempt from a Lawrence corner was deflected wide by a defender.
It was all Sunderland. Good play by Brown set up Stewart, whose shot was saved by Reading keeper Marcus Hahnemann, who also saved well from Arca at the back post.
Robinson hit the bar, while Hahnemann also saved well from Whitehead, who was played in by Arca, who was having a major influence on proceedings. The American keeper also saved well again from Robinson on the stroke of half time.
At the interval, Thomas Myhre – who, as I’ve said in previous articles about this season, was an excellent keeper – was taken off with a back injury, and replaced by perennial reserve Michael Ingham for his league debut for the club.
Northern Irishman Ingham had been with Sunderland for what seemed like years. He’d made two previous league cup starts – the first in 2001 – and had failed to impress on either occasion. He’d conceded four both times, and always looked way off playing Premier League – or indeed Championship – football.
In a white hot atmosphere, the second half started in much the same fashion as the first; Arca being denied once again by Hahnemann before eventually putting Sunderland ahead on – heading home at the back post from a deflected Stewart cross.
So, all seemed to be going to plan.
However, after the goal, the pendulum swung, and all of a sudden Reading came into the game. Our defence, focusing on protecting a clearly nervous Ingham, who was struggling with his positioning and distribution, were forced deeper and deeper – and with 15 minutes remaining got into something of a tangle, which allowed Dave Kitson to bundle his way through to slot underneath the young keeper.
In response, McCarthy threw on new signing Deane – making him Sunderland’s oldest debutant at 37 years and 58 days – and a series of long balls were hoisted up to the big striker, but to no avail. Just as it looked as though we’d have to settle for a point, a Steve Sidwell surge into the box on 82 minutes was ended abruptly by a lunging tackle from Jeff Whitley.
Whitley had been a mainstay of the team for the majority of the season, but a poor performance at QPR the week before had seen him dropped to the bench – he clearly wanted to prove a point – but this was a rash attempt to do so. That was pretty much the end of Whitley’s Sunderland career.
Kitson blasted into the bottom corner, giving Ingham no chance.
We came close to an equaliser – Whitehead headed wide and also had a free kick that narrowly went over, while Whitley tried to redeem himself from 25 yards, but to no avail.
It finished 2-1 to Reading, and – despite the good run leading up to the game – you couldn’t help but be disappointed in the outcome.
Despite defeat, we remained top of the table, but headed to Ipswich the following Sunday for another Sky game. Ipswich were chasing Sunderland and Wigan for an automatic place, and we certainly needed to avoid defeat – if not get all three points.
Myhre’s injury had ruled him out again, so Ingham started in goal. After a goalless first half – during which Marcus Stewart put a penalty wide – we went one down, after Ingham flapped badly at a corner. On came Brian Deane and within a minute he set up Elliott to head in an equaliser. Robinson scored after Deane caused problems in the box to put us in the lead, before we conceded a last minute equaliser to a certain Darren Bent.
In addition to flapping for the goal Ingham again looked shaky, particularly to high balls thrown into the box, and – in Myhre’s continued absence – McCarthy turned to untested youth team keeper Ben Alnwick for the run in. Alnwick stepped up wonderfully, and despite conceding after only five minutes of his debut, played a major role in securing the points that sealed firstly promotion and then the championship for Sunderland.
A promotion race is rarely straightforward, and has many twists and turns – results don’t always go the way you expect them for any team, and a focus on the end goal is always needed. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how we do it, as long as we end up doing it!