Some of my favourite-ever away days came during the 2006/07 season. The confidence Roy Keane instilled in everyone – players, supporters, the city and the region – was incredible; he picked us all up and took us along for the ride.
He believed in us, and for a person of that stature to say, ‘you’re a big club, be proud of yourselves’ was awe-inspiring.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to full appreciate the standing Keane had in world football at the time, and know Keano more from his TV punditry today, it’s impossible to imagine the impact he had.
This was the Premier League’s best, and most influential, player; a person renowned, respected and feared as the captain who’d dragged his team, sometimes single-handedly, through games.
The Champions League semi in 1999 against Juventus epitomised everything about him. Booked early on, which meant he’d miss the final should they get there, Keane played a blinder. Nine years earlier, another stunningly good midfielder, Gazza, wept and crumbled when he received a semi-final yellow which meant he’d be out of the final should his team get there. Keane, rolled his sleeves up, and made sure his team would face Bayern at the Nou Camp.
And it was this mentality, to strive for the best, to demand the best, which manifested itself in Saipan a few years later, which was still fresh in everyone’s minds when Keane took over at the Stadium of Light.
It impacted everyone. We went into games, especially away games, full of confidence – however that had been dented by a couple of heavy defeats at Ipswich and Preston. In both games we were bloody awful.
But we had Roy Keane. He’d sort it out. Opposition fans wanted to talk about him when we went there – what was it like supporting a club he was managing? We were a curiosity, a good sort of curiosity, and we were all along for the ride.
We’d already experienced the highs of Keane’s first two games in charge – Derby and Leeds – but those heavy defeats had tempered that early optimism much, and we were still in 17th position in the table.
But things were on the up.
I was living in Leeds at the time and, on this day 16 years ago, me and a few of my mates jumped on the train down to Hull, necking a few cans on the train and sampling all of the ‘delights’ Hull had to offer.
We almost didn’t make it to the game, mind. Making our way slowly to the ground, via a pint or two, we stopped off at the ropiest looking place you’ve ever seen. It wasn’t too far from the Kingston Communications Stadium, as it was then known, but was pretty much surrounded by wasteland. We used to make a game of it – who could pick the dodgiest pub to have a beer without coming to any lasting harm. This pub won, hands down.
Anyway, we got in there just before kick-off, just in time to see the lads to come out to face a Hull side who were struggling with only two wins in 13 games under new manager Phil Parkinson (yep, Phil Parkinson) and were down at the bottom of the table.
For a long while, however, it looked Hull – who had Nick Barmby and Michael Bridges on the bench, and Danny Mills, Jon Parkin and Michael Turner in their starting XI – would add at least a point to their measly tally, more due to our lack of cutting edge than anything else. The home side had a couple of chances but rarely threatened Darren Ward, while at the other end Chris Brown and Liam Lawrence in particular, missed good chances, and it looked as though we were about to drop a couple of points.
And then, in the dying seconds, one of those ‘if you were there, you’ll never forget it’ moments.
Ross Wallace, one of the new additions, cut into the box from the inside right channel, and placed the ball past Hull keeper Boaz Myhill.
The away end went absolutely mental.
So did Wallace.
When he’d scored the winner on his Sunderland debut at Derby, he whipped his shirt off in celebration and received a yellow. He did the same today, but unfortunately he’d already go one yellow for dissent, and the shirt removal made it two. Off he went, still celebrating his goal.
And Parky only lasted another month or so, too.