Having won the Championship in his first campaign as Sunderland manager, Roy Keane wasted no time in identifying where his squad needed drastic improvement if it was going to be able to compete on our return to the Premier League.
Strangely, one of Sunderland’s most dependable players during that title-winning season was experienced goalkeeper Darren Ward. Even now, writing this many years later, it doesn’t feel as though Ward gets the credit for the stellar job he did between the sticks for us that year - he came here initially as a backup option with lower-league experience, but he quickly impressed with some fantastic performances, and never lost his place in the side.
Prior to arriving at Sunderland he’d been a backup keeper at Norwich. Nobody expected him to end up as our first choice but, to his credit, he worked hard and played very well.
Keane’s ruthlessness in his decision-making meant that there was no room for sentiment when building his squad for the Premier League, and spending decent money on a top-class goalkeeper was seen as a priority.
Eventually, we’d break the British transfer record for a goalkeeper by signing Hearts stopper Craig Gordon for nine million pounds, but early on in the summer, it was clear that Keane was hoping to bring in someone a little cheaper who had more experience of playing in the top flight.
Manchester United’s Tomasz Kuszczak was right near the top of the list, and a move looked likely, but a serious knee injury sustained by Ben Foster meant that Sir Alex Ferguson was reluctant to let the Poland international leave Old Trafford that summer.
Keane was unperturbed though, and he pressed on with testing Bolton Wanderers’ resolve by lodging a series of bids for their dependable goalie Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Jaaskelainen, who was 32-years-old at the time, had refused a new contract offer from Sammy Lee and with just a year left on his deal, Keane was keen (pun indended) to see if he could tempt the Trotters to part ways with their long-standing number one.
Reports at the time suggested that the Finland international wanted a four-year deal, something that Sunderland were willing to offer, and it was understood that an offer of two million pounds was put forward.
As it turned out, Bolton rejected our advances, and with the pressure on to secure their star man, Jasskelainen accepted their offer of a new deal the next day.
He remained with the Trotters until 2012, and his playing career carried on until he was 42, before retiring and entering coaching in 2018.
Perhaps it’s a case of ‘what if’ - Jaaskelainen was a fantastic goalkeeper and had Sunderland been able to sign him, I’m sure he would have been a huge asset.
Craig Gordon was clearly a very good goalkeeper, and was seen as one of the hottest prospects in British football at the time, but his stint on Wearside was marred constantly by injury problems, meaning he was never really able to live up to his massive price tag.
Interesting times, though. It was exciting being a Sunderland fan back then, knowing we had an attractive, ambitious manager who could really sell the club to potential signings.
Let’s hope a return to the big time isn’t too far down the road for us.
It’s where we belong!