Sunderland enjoyed an obvious new manager bounce following the arrival of Roy Keane but, as the 1-0 home defeat to Preston North End had shown, in the first few months of his tenure the side were still capable of throwing in the odd poor performance.
This was the final game of 2006 and it proved a fitting end – the year had seen Sunderland relegated from the Premiership with a record low point haul, and whilst things had certainly improved the club had not fully shaken off the losing habit.
Slowly but surely however, things were turning around. Whilst the side had already managed to put together a seven-game unbeaten run earlier in the season though, the dismal showing against Preston was still their 11th league defeat of the season and it had left them firmly midtable. It was going to take something special to stop 2006-07 fizzling out, therefore, and Sunderland’s performance on this date proved to be the spark.
Coming only 48 hours after their Preston loss and with injuries starting to mount, Keane made four changes to his starting line-up for a match at struggling Leicester City on the 1st of January 2007. One of those moves saw Chris Brown come into the side, and whilst it would prove to be his last game for the club prior to moving to Norwich City he went out on a high with a tireless performance.
With Brown working hard up top and the home fans feeling tense Sunderland went for it from the off. Paul Henderson led a charmed life in the Leicester goal, but just as it was starting to look like his efforts may have secured an unlikely point for the Foxes he was beaten by a quickfire double that gave the Lads their 4th away win of the season.
Tobias Hysen and Stan Varga both went close in the first half before Henderson stopped what looked like a certain goal 10 minutes into the second when he got down extremely well to push David Connolly’s low shot round the post. Connolly had turned in the box brilliantly to create the opening and his time would eventually come, but it was only after the introduction of Daryl Murphy as a replacement for Brown on the hour mark.
With Brown’s job done and the home defence tiring, Murphy was able to stretch them further. He was flagged offside after putting the ball in the net shortly after coming on and whilst he didn’t register a goal of his own, he was involved in both of Sunderland’s strikes – first hitting the bar with an effort that rebounded to Hysen to then nod home after 79 minutes and then racing clear four minutes later and forcing Henderson into a save that fell nicely to Connolly to stoke into the net.
In between the goals there had even been time for another Connolly finish to also be deemed offside and the sudden blast left Leicester with no chance of coming back; home boss Rob Kelly later admitted his side had been well beaten, and such was Sunderland’s dominance the hosts didn’t register a shot on target until the final minute of normal time. Steven Hughes’ attempt was comfortably saved by Darren Ward anyway, and the final score of 2-0 was just reward for a solid team showing.
Victory moved the club up to 10th but more importantly, the manner of it helped instill more confidence into a squad still being moulded by Keane.
As well as being a swansong for Brown the game saw a brief debut cameo from his fellow Academy of Light product Peter Hartley and was the final outing in a Sunderland shirt for loanee defender Lewin Nyatanga. Come the next fixture though, against Preston again but now in the FA Cup, both Jonny Evans and Carlos Edwards were making their bows and with the impetus gained from the Leicester match and the January additions blending well with the players already there Sunderland quickly became a different beast.
With things now clicking into place it would not be until April that they lost another league game, by which time the side were top of the Championship and well on their way to promotion. If Sunderland’s resolution was to improve their fortunes beating Leicester on this day was the perfect way to begin, and it kick-started a 17 league game unbeaten run that helped ensure that the new year was going to be a million times better than the last.