There was much excitement when Kieran Richardson signed for Sunderland in the summer of 2007. The £5.5m man came with a decent reputation after playing semi-regularly for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team, and also making appearances for the English national team.
The beginning of his Sunderland career was underwhelming. It was discovered he had a stress fracture in his back, which saw him sidelined for a prolonged period before his Stadium of Light career had even gotten going.
Fifteen years ago today, however, Richardson – albeit belatedly – arrived.
A few days earlier, Richardson returned to the pitch for a cameo against his former employer in Sunderland’s 4-0 drubbing. But it was this game against Bolton Wanderers which left Sunderland fans salivating with excitement as to what he could bring to the side.
With one win in the previous thirteen, Sunderland were struggling in the league, languishing in the bottom three of the Premier League. Injuries were wreaking havoc on Keane’s squad, while controversial refereeing decisions seemed to be stacking up against us; most memorably at the Madjeski Stadium against Reading.
This was a perfect opportunity for Sunderland to gain three crucial points against a struggling Bolton Wanderers side, and Keane knew this. His lineup included three strikers, alongside the returning Richardson.
Sunderland: Gordon, Whitehead, McShane, Higginbotham, Collins, Miller, Richardson (O’Donovan 70), Etuhu, Chopra (Leadbitter 46), Cole (Murphy 57), Jones. Subs Not Used: Ward, Waghorn.
Another ex-Manchester United player, Andy Cole, was starting his game for the club, but it was Richardson - and his connection with Kenwyne Jones - that really stood out in this game.
Jones, who’d arrived as the transfer window closed, was swiftly becoming the talisman in this Sunderland team. His goals and assists were absolutely crucial to any survival hopes, and other teams were already being linked with moves for him.
Twelve minutes into this game, Jones’ dazzling dribbling feet set the Stadium of Light alight and spooked a Bolton side that had not won a game away from home all season. The Trinidadian picked the ball up around the middle of the park and with opposition players all around him, he detected a slight gap to squeeze himself out of trouble and set Richardson free and smash the ball into the net.
The early goal calmed the nerves and sparked confidence in fans and players alike. The blossoming relationship between Richardson and Jones was like a late Christmas present for the fans, and they paired up to put Sunderland 2-0 up – Richardson’s corner was glanced in by Jones’s head after he darted in front of the Bolton defence.
While looking so comfortable for the duration of the first half, the last thing a fragile Sunderland defence needed was to concede a goal just before half time. Of course, this is what happened as an innocuous free kick from future Sunderland player El-Hadji Diouf trickled all the way across the box and into the net leaving Craig Gordon stranded on his line.
This led to a second half that was far less comfortable than it had to be. The defence looked uneasy and uncomfortable as Bolton probed through the likes of Anelka and Diouf. According to a fan in the Guardian, had the opposition had any more quality, we would’ve been in trouble.
Thank God we’ve got Kenwyne Jones - without him we would be in real trouble. He’s far and away our best player. He scored his goal and made the others. After we went two up we just tried to keep what we had. We defended far too deeply - had the defence gone back any further they would have been sitting in the stands. When we were thrashed by Man United the other day. This wasn’t much better, but luckily Bolton are not United.
With a half hour to go, we were lucky not to concede an equaliser as Diouf fired wide from close range.
Credit to the defence, they were dogged and determined despite lacking quality - and Daryl Murphy’s late third goal enabled the team to breathe a sigh of relief. The ball was played through for the Irishman, and he used his strength to brush off Danny Guthrie and rifle a shot to the net.
Despite the pivotal role of Jones and Richardson, it was the performances at the back that pleased Roy Keane the most.
Our back four have been heavily criticised this season, but they played very well today. It’s nice to win - it seems like a long time since we’ve won one. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s a win.
This was a vital win - and with some reinforcements and players returning from injury, the New Year certainly brought some more positive results with Richardson and Jones continuing to become key players in the push for survival.