When Niall Quinn flew in to rescue Sunderland as head of the Drumaville consortium, the thought of choosing the team for the first game of the season had likely never entered his head.
There was plenty of work to do following relegation, and a major decision was to find a new manager. Sam Allardyce had been close to leaving Bolton for a Wearside return, but decided against it at the last minute. Kevin Richardson had led the team for the majority of the pre-season, but Quinn – having failed to find a manager in time for the kick off – had taken the reins for the start of the season.
Desperate to have a full squad, Quinn began bringing in players – Kenny Cunningham, Robbie Elliott, Darren Ward and William Mocquet arrived in pre-season and three of them were in the squad that faced Coventry for the season’s opener: Cunningham starting at centre back, former Newcastle man Elliott and keeper Ward on the bench.
There was a jubilant, excited mood in the away end on a bright summer’s afternoon – the returning hero Quinn was heralded as you’d expect, and the popular Bobby Saxton likewise was welcomed back fondly. Four wins out of four in pre-season – 10 goals scored, none conceded – only added to the expectation Quinn’s rhetoric had generated.
On the field, however, it was very much a team that had amassed a paltry 15 points the season before – minus Julio Arca, who’d departed for Middlesbrough shortly after playing in Sunderland’s first pre-season friendly.
Ben Alnwick – labelled by Quinn, probably unfairly, as the new Jimmy Montgomery – started in goal in front of a back four of Delap, Cunningham, Caldwell and Danny Collins. Lawrence, Leadbitter, Miller and Whitehead formed the midfield, with Murphy and Stephen Elliott playing up front.
Ultimately, the game ended in defeat for Sunderland, who dominated large parts of it without ever being able to truly get a foothold.
A point-blank save by Alnwick from Stern John kept the scores level at half time, and it looked as though we might get the new era off to the perfect start when Daryl Murphy prodded home from a corner shortly after half time.
With 20 minutes left on the clock John equalised – turning Kenny Cunningham before curling home from the edge of the box – and moments later Gary McSheffrey, always a dangerous opponent, hit a shot that made its way through a bunch of players to seal victory for the Sky Blues.
After the game, Quinn said:
Stern John’s goal was world class and you can do very little about something like that.
From the free-kick for their second we were caught napping. That’s a glitch we had last season and has cost us dear again. It’s something we can work on.
But I do not want that to take away from our performance which was full of enthusiasm and for the most part, I think we outplayed Coventry.
Quinn turned to the transfer market for reinforcements – Clive Clarke, Arnau and Toby Hysen all arrived over the coming weeks – but after four league defeats and a league cup exit at the hands of Bury, Quinn finally got a manager in. It was, of course, Roy Keane.
Of the team that started the season, only Collins, Leadbitter, Whitehead and Murphy played major roles in our surge to the title. As the likes of Wallace, Varga, Yorke, Connolly, Kavanagh, Nyatanga, Simpson, Edwards, Fulop, Stokes, Evans and, of course, Stern John arrive throughout the season a whole new team was created by Keane; one which ultimately won the title in style.
Of the signings Quinn made, only Darren Ward and Toby Hysen were remotely fancied by Keane – the rest made a total of 20 starts for the club and were quickly sent out on loan or sold – an expensive, short term fix that added little value at all.
The Quinn era was ultimately a huge success, and it just went to show the value of not panicking to get absolutely everything in place for the start of the season. While Quinn’s signings were, by in large, poor, he didn’t lose his nerve when it came to the key appointment that he just had to get right.
He could have appointed ‘anyone’ as manager that pre-season – there were plenty of people throwing their hat into the ring – but Quinn held out for the right person.
He eventually got him – and it was certainly worth the wait.