Even if we didn’t know it at the time, it’s clear that the Roy Keane era at Sunderland was beginning to unravel by November 2008.
On this day fourteen years ago, we somehow managed to lose to Tony Adams’ Portsmouth at the Stadium of Light, despite being the better side throughout.
This defeat was our third in a row, and murmurings about Keane’s future at the club were growing louder. Sunderland hadn’t won since the 2-1 victory over Newcastle, and had only won three league games from twelve matches.
Poor finishing was continuing to hinder our chances of progress, with new signing Djibril Cissé the main culprit. The on-loan Marseille striker’s form was reasonably good, with three goals going into this game, but his ratio of chances to goals was a worry.
To his credit, he gave us the perfect start when he scored after only three minutes. Andy Reid’s sixty yard pass set Cissé free, and he latched onto the ball before threading it through the legs of David James.
After the 5-0 thumping we’d taken at Chelsea, this was the perfect start, and it appeared to have the desired effect, with Cissé and Kieran Richardson coming very close after the first goal.
After his woodwork debacle against Fulham a few weeks previously, Richardson must’ve been wondering what he’d done to deserve such bad luck. The midfielder picked up the ball thirty yards out and rifled a shot that appeared goalbound, only for it to come crashing back off the post.
It was all Sunderland, with Portsmouth’s attack rarely troubling our defence during the first half, and the Lads must’ve been wondering how they were only one goal up at the break.
Eventually, however, we would come to rue all of the missed chances.
Portsmouth were quick to redress the balance after the break, with Nadir Belhadj collecting Niko Kranjcar’s pass and crashing a low shot into the corner from thirty five yards.
The visitors’ form had been horrendous since they’d lost Harry Redknapp to Tottenham Hotspur, but the belief that appeared to have almost completely drained away was slowly starting to rise again.
Future Sunderland star Jermain Defoe was all over our defence and Glen Johnson was enjoying increasing success down the right hand side, with Danny Collins being exposed time after time.
Cisse continued to threaten, however, and only the offside flag denied him a second goal when he headed home Reid’s cross, before a Johnson lunge deflected his goalbound shot wide late on.
As the second half progressed, the match appeared to be heading for a draw until substitute El-Hadji Diouf had one of the many moments of madness that epitomised his turbulent Premier League career.
As Johnson attempted to burst into the box, Diouf clumsily dived in and caught none of the ball but all of the man, in what Keane labelled ‘ a striker’s challenge’.
Defoe dispatched the penalty with minimal fuss to give the away side an unlikely three points. Indeed, Tony Adams appeared dumbfounded afterwards, admitting that the win was barely deserved.
That was probably our worst performance in the four games we’ve played since I took over and yet we’ve won - I haven’t got a clue how this game works!
In the first half we were poor, giving the ball away far too easily, and I just talked at half time about technical stuff, being compact, keeping the ball better and looking after Cisse, who I thought looked very dangerous today.
As for Keane, he was visibly disappointed but praised his players, who’d put in a decent performance despite the result.
It’s very disappointing. We clearly didn’t deserve to lose and had enough chances to win the game easily, so to throw it away like we did is very disappointing.
I’ve no complaints over the penalty. It was a typical, unnecessary, striker’s challenge, but we paid the price for not taking our chances when they came around.
I guess I can’t fault my players too much today but we’ll lick our wounds and make sure we’re ready to fight another day.
Sunderland: Fulop, Bardsley, Ferdinand; Nosworthy, Collins, Malbranque (Leadbitter 80’), Whitehead; Reid (Healy 80’), Richardson, Cisse, Murphy (Diouf 46’)
Subs Not Used: Colgan, Tainio, Miller, Henderson.
Booked: Collins, Whitehead.
Goals: Cisse 4’
Portsmouth: James, Johnson, Campbell; Distin, Belhadj, Pamarot; Davis, Diarra, Kranjcar (Utaka 75’), Defoe (Hughes 90’), Crouch (Kanu 69’).
Subs Not Used: Ashdown, Kaboul, Diop, Armand Traore.
Goals: Belhadj 51’, Defoe 90’ (pen)
Ref: Steve Bennett (Kent)