Sunderland fans were just getting their heads together when the team began the new era under Ricky Sbragia with a convincing win against Tony Mowbray’s West Brom.
As pictures of Roy Keane were removed from the walls of the Stadium of Light, fans were swiftly moving on to the new manager - with Sbragia the unlikely candidate to take over the job after this comfortable win.
Sbragia’s men looked like a team who had the shackles taken off them. They were playing with a lot more freedom and zest that may have been lacking in the latter times of Keane’s stint in charge.
The Scot was seen as somebody who got along with everyone in the squad - one who was a player's manager, and created strong bonds with the players in the squad. In addition to this, he stated himself that he wanted to empower the players in the squad to have more of a say in how the team was setup.
“I’ve tried to give the senior players a bit more of a voice,” said Sbragia. “They can have an opinion. We have chats. My staff and I aren’t always right. Players sometimes see things we might not. Sometimes their ideas are probably better.”
A believer in dressing-room democracy he may be but this does not preclude Sbragia coming over all managerial when necessary. “I spoke with three players regarding my team selection and they’re not happy,” explained the former Manchester United and Bolton coach who provoked an angry response from Steed Malbranque when he substituted the midfielder.
“Steed’s not happy,” he acknowledged. “And [El Hadji] Diouf is definitely unhappy but at least I gave him a reason why I left him out. Our big squad’s a problem but, if I’m honest with people, I’ll be OK.”
Sbragia’s style was certainly having the desired impact with the team putting in one of the best performances of the season here.
Some changes were made - and they had the impact required. Teemu Tainio - signed by Keane - came into the team for a rare start. His deployment between defence and midfield was a stroke of genius as his deep playmaking style suited perfectly in this game where West Brom gave the team space to play.
Along with Tainio, the role of Andy Reid proved crucial. He was Sunderland’s creative catalyst, in a tucked-in, left-sided role. When Reid despatched a sumptuously curving, left- footed, far-post delivery Kenwyne Jones evaded Méïté to head the opener.
Djibril Cissé and Kenwyne Jones were proving to be a handful - with their power and pace way too hot to handle for the West Brom defence. ones soon added a second from close range before Reid dodged Zuiverloon to connect with Malbranque’s cross and head the third. Djibril Cissé’s penalty following Roman Bednar’s handball fully extinguished the contest.
The win was as comfortable as the scoreline suggested. Sbragia was getting a tune out of this Sunderland team - leading to the board being less worried about getting a permanent replacement in.
Sbragia wasn’t let himself get too concerned about the job on a permanent position, preferring to focus on the results on the pitch.
“I am not even thinking about the job, and that’s the truth. If it’s there, it’s there; if it’s not, it’s not.
“We have a big game next week at Hull and all I can do is focus on what we want to do there
“If we win games, we win games. That’s fantastic for Sunderland Football Club, and we need that.
“We need to get out of the mire we are in just now, and that’s one step to it. But there’s a lot to go.”
As the weeks went on - and the positive results continued to flow, it became almost impossible for Sbragia to reject the opportunity of taking a managerial hot seat on a permanent basis.
Sunderland: Fulop, Bardsley, Ferdinand, Nosworthy, Collins, Malbranque (Edwards 59), Tainio, Richardson, Reid (Leadbitter 79), Cisse, Jones.
Subs Not Used: Colgan, Diouf, Miller, Murphy, Yorke.
Goals: Jones 22, 24, Reid 40, Cisse 47 pen.
West Brom: Carson, Zuiverloon, Olsson, Meite, Robinson, Brunt (Kim 46), Borja Valero, Koren, Morrison (Bednar 46), Greening, Moore (Beattie 68).
Subs Not Used: Kiely, Cech, Barnett, Filipe Teixeira.
Booked: Carson, Robinson.
Ref: Lee Mason (Lancashire).