David Meyler was brought to Sunderland by Roy Keane, and it was easy to understand why: Keane evidently saw something of himself in the combative midfielder from Cork, enough certainly to splash out £250,000 rising to £500,000 based on appearances and international call ups.
Keane had long since departed the club by the time Steve Bruce gave Meyler his debut – in a 2-2 home draw with Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn (former SAFC player El Hadji Diouf coming off the bench to net an equaliser within a couple of minutes).
Meyler impressed during his nine Premier League starts that season. He was busy, passed well and liked a tackle – and with Cattermole and Cana first choice centre midfielders, the need to fill in for a game or two due to suspension was never far off. His progress, however, was halted harshly by a serious cruciate knee injury suffered in the penultimate game of the season, against Manchester United. He was stretchered off around the half hour mark, with initial reports ruling him out for at least the whole of the following season – Meyler has subsequently said he was told it would be 18-24 months at best until he played again.
As fate had it, Cana departed the club after only a year, and had he been fit, Meyler would likely have taken the Albanian captain’s place – however the young Irishman had to watch on from the sidelines for the first few months of the season, as Sunderland, after a decent start, climbed into the league’s top third.
By the time Santa was limbering up for another year’s action, Meyler was thrown back into the starting XI – surprisingly so, given the initial prognosis.
Without so much as an unused sub appearance, he started the 0-0 draw at Fulham, came off the bench at Old Trafford, and then started three games in a week – the ‘DJ Campbell’ home game against Blackpool, a 3-0 home win over Blackburn, and this fixture 11 years ago today.
Steve Bruce had been vocal in his criticism of the fixture list, shouting that his team were being ‘flogged to death’ with five games in 13 games before the game, which made his selection of Meyler all the more puzzling.
Now, I’m no sports medical expert, but I distinctly remember being worried about Meyler’s inclusion in this game – three Premier League starts in nine days for any player is tough. For a young player who’s just come back from hugely serious injury it seemed downright foolish – particularly with the likes of Zenden and Riveros on the bench.
And so it proved – before half time Meyler got his studs caught in the turf and did the same thing, to the same knee again. Would it have happened regardless? Maybe. Meyler says neither Bruce or the physio staff rushed him back, and it was simply a ‘freak’ accident.
The delay for treatment prolonged a turgid first half against Villa – a horrendous miss from Emile Heskey, hitting the bar from a couple of yards out, being the closest Villa came, while Steed Malbranque headed wide for Sunderland.
A brighter second half saw Sunderland dominate. Malbranque went close again, Bent – a couple of weeks out from a move to Villa Park – saw his effort cleared off the line by James Collins, and Henderson shot wide from inside the box. Heskey was then sent off for pushing Henderson in the jaw as the home team’s frustration increased.
With fewer than 10 minutes left, Sunderland made Villa pay. Bardsley, who’d had a spell on loan at Villa Park before joining Sunderland, shot home from outside the box to give the lads only their second away win of the season – the other coming at Stamford Bridge.
Sunderland also saw red after Bolo Zenden – Meyler’s replacement – picked up a second yellow for a soft foul, but the team cemented their sixth placed position and sent Villa into the relegation zone for the first time in 10 years.
After starting those three games in nine days, Meyler was ruled out for the majority of the season – he was named as an unused sub for a couple of games towards the tail end – and actually started only one more league game for Sunderland, away at Stoke the following season, where he was victim of a horrible tackle by Robert Huth.
He was a fixture on the bench the following campaign, which saw Bruce depart and O’Neill come in, and he later revealed Kenny Dalglish had told him his injury at Villa Park had cost him a move to Anfield.
Dalglish had earmarked Meyler as a future star, and had planned to sign him alongside Jordan Henderson. The injury scuppered the deal, and while Meyler went on to have a good professional career – playing almost 200 games for Hull, and managing to get head butted off the Newcastle manager, he could have been an absolute star. At the time, many rated him as a better prospect than Henderson, and it’s a shame injuries disrupted his career to such a great extent.