For anyone who has travelled the length and breadth of the country following The Lads, the 2006-07 season was one that won’t be easily forgotten for those who put the miles in that year.
To go from bottom of the Coca-Cola Championship and being dumped out of the League Cup by Bury, who were bottom of League Two at the time, to end up being title winners won’t be something that will be repeated too often.
And then it was the way it happened. Almost by force of character, Roy Keane gave us a swagger and just a belief that we wouldn’t be beaten with him at the helm.
But, it’s easy to forget that it took a little time. It’s sometimes tempting to think he kicked the doors open of the saloon like a scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and told us we wouldn’t lose another game and we’d take the title with our place in the Premier League, but it wasn’t quite how it happened.
Initially, it did feel a bit like that, and even Niall Quinn piggy-backed on the feeling of Keane watching from the stands against West Bromwich Albion before he handed over the baton. Deadline day came only days after Keane’s appointment, and four made their debuts in his first game on the touchline which was 1-2 win at Derby County.
We then went and beat Leeds at Elland Road 0-3, but then after that Roy Keane really had to go to work as the euphoria of his appointment began to settle. Sunderland won one of the next five and sat 19th in the table towards the end of October.
As the festive season came around, there was something brewing, but it was hardly bubbling at that point, as the form was pretty solid when good runs of results were interspersed with the odd defeat and/or draw. But then we moved into 2007.
A win at Leicester City on New Year’s Day in the League was followed up with a defeat in the FA Cup at Preston North End, where a line seemed to be drawn in the sand. We faced Jim Magilton’s Ipswich Town in the next game with new recruits, Jonny Evans, Carlos Edwards (who made their debuts at Preston) and Anthony Stokes, and after winning 1-0 we didn’t look back.
Next up, in Roy Keane’s 25th game in charge of the club, we travelled to Sheffield Wednesday, who were managed by Keane’s former team-mate at Nottingham Forest, Brian Laws.
We’d slowly climbed to 9th in the table, where we could smell the play-offs, so much so that 6,000 away fans travelled down the M1 to South Yorkshire, and Wednesday were in the same boat sitting two places and three points below. So this was a test going to a side that on paper were in and around us, but in typical fashion that year, we just swatted them aside.
It took until around twenty minutes for us to take the advantage and it was another Keane signing, Dwight Yorke who showed all of his class when he played a neat one-two on the edge of the box and clipped over the out-stretched Mark Crossley in the Wednesday goal. Advantage Sunderland as Dwight Yorke leaped into the away fans behind the goal.
Just before half-time, Dean Whitehead stormed down the right in his new full-back role and whipped a low tempting cross to the near post where yet another new Roy Keane signing, this time a £1.7 million signing from Djurgarden Tobias Hysen, smashed the ball into the net with his left foot.
Half-time saw a miserable attempt at a world record air guitar attempt as for once, the Sunderland fans could relax on an away day at half-time, and rightly so as it only took us around 15 minutes of the second half to score a third.
This time, Hysen the provider by squaring the ball for David Connolly to easily finish and put clear daylight between The Lads and our hosts. But, we then learned a lesson that served us well for the remainder of the season - with nine minutes remaining, Deon Burton scored a free-kick that bizarrely found its way past Darren Ward when it was maybe easier to save it.
The nerves really started to fray, when Wade Small cut the deficit to one with only three minutes to go with a scruffy effort that evaded three Sunderland players on the line. Thankfully, Carlos Edwards restored a two-goal lead when he tucked away Sunderland’s fourth when Mark Crossley palmed a low Daryl Murphy shot into his path a couple of yards out from goal.
Roy Keane’s name might have been sung in the away end to the tune of Hey Jude towards the end of the game, but Keane had more pressing matters to ponder, such as how we ended up becoming nervous after taking a three-goal lead as he stated after the game:
I was disappointed generally. We’re doing okay. We’re taking baby steps. We got away with it. It was a good result but the performance was disappointing. We kept giving the ball away and players were doing the wrong things, taking too many touches. The players are capable of doing better than that.
It was a good lesson to learn for the Sunderland players, in terms of the standards the new manager expected as we won all but four during the remaining 17 fixtures that were scheduled that season.
Saturday 20th January, 2007
Sheffield Wednesday 2-4 Sunderland
[Brunt 82’, Small 87’ - Yorke 21’, Hysen 46’, Connolly 58’, Edwards 89’]
Sunderland: Ward, Whitehead, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins, Edwards, Miller (Leadbitter), Yorke, Hysen (Wallace), Elliott, Connolly (Murphy) Substitutes not used: Fulop, Varga
Sheffield Wednesday: Crossley, Bullen, Coughlan (McAllister), Small, Lunt, Whelan, Folly, O’Brien (Clarke), MacLean (Burton), Brunt, Tudgay Substitutes not used: Adamson, Graham