All of the talk over the past 24 hours has been of the possibility of Roy Keane returning to Sunderland as manager – and on this day 15 years ago we continued our climb up the championship table – ultimately destined for the league title – with a 2-0 win over Coventry.
Since arriving at the Stadium of Light at the end of August, Keane had overseen a dramatic turnaround.
After the 15-point relegation season, the club was on its knees and while Niall Quinn’s takeover raised spirits in pre-season, on the field we continued the new campaign where we’d left off in the last one.
A season-opening run of five defeats, conceding 11 goals and scoring only four, was ended in spectacular fashion by Keane’s sheer presence as we disposed of a West Brom team that included their new signing Kevin Phillips – who’d turned down a move to Sunderland only days earlier – 2-0 at the Stadium of Light.
Those of a certain age today will be more familiar with Keane the TV pundit, however as a player he was simply awesome. In terms of the mentality he brought to the field he was a class above anyone – his will to win ferocious and his desire enviable.
He commanded respect, when he talked people listened. He felt a connection with Sunderland thanks to Brian Clough’s history with the club – Clough, of course, the manager Keane rated above all others through his playing career.
He immediately put pictures up of Sunderland’s proud history, to remind the players and staff just how big a club they were playing for, and his aura immediately galvanised players and fans alike.
Anyone who was in the crowd at Derby and Leeds for those first two away games couldn’t help but buy into Keane – we were box office again, the focus was on us.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. After those two away wins we only won three of the following 10 as players were tried and tested, and come early November we were 19th in the table.
We’d suffered a couple of heavy away defeats in those early days – 3-0 at Ipswich and 4-1 at Preston – and Keane set about tightening the defence. And while it was the arrival in January of Jonny Evans that had the most significant impact, Keane’s transformation of Nyron Nosworthy from a rogue right back into a majestic ball playing centre half can never be overlooked.
As we headed into the game against Coventry the bandwagon was building up speed. We’d won eight and lost only two of our past 13 league games – with only one league defeat since 4 November.
We’d conceded only four goals in the past six games – two of those in that infamous Sheff Wed victory – and had kept a clean sheet in our last outing, an away draw at Crystal Palace.
As well as Evans, Keane had added Marton Fulop, Carlos Edwards and Stern John to the squad, and John made his debut against a Coventry side managed by Peter Reid’s former assistant manager Adrian Heath (the coach with European experience, those of a certain age may recall) and featuring Kevin Kyle, who’d been flogged earlier in the season.
It was a solid, routine 2-0 win for the lads, with John’s international teammates Dwight Yorke and Carlos Edwards getting the goals. Also making his debut from the bench was new loan signing Danny Simpson, who went on to play an important role as we headed up the table.
Keane had breathed confidence into the team and the crowd responded – there was a steely desire to keep the points ticking over and the momentum that was building at this point was infectious.
The three points gained on this day 15 years ago lifted Sunderland to 7th, and was an important win as our unbeaten run gathered pace. From the turn of the year, we won 16, drew three and lost only one league game – away at Colchester towards the end of April – as we literally surged to the title.
Late goals were a common theme as the team played right to the last, and everyone was behind Roy Keane’s Sunderland. We were back.
Of course, this was Keane’s first managerial appointment, and there were question marks over him in his latter days in the Premier League – particularly in the transfer market.
He’s not done a great deal since, managerially speaking. A relatively unimpressive spell at Ipswich and assistant posts at Villa, Ireland and Forest have hardly set the pulses racing.
If – and it’s still a big if – he comes back to Sunderland it’ll clearly be a move that’s driven more by emotion than data, and it’s not one that logically fits into the ‘long-term plan’.
But, emotion’s what football’s all about, isn’t it? Some players and managers just click with a club, and I think Keane and Sunderland go together perfectly. If he does take over and can galvanise the team, the crowd and the city as he did back in 06/07 we could be in for some good times.
I liked Lee Johnson, and still think we should have given him the season, but that chapter’s over now and, when you’re looking at some of the names linked with the job – the Grant McCanns, the Alex Neils, the run of the mill, on the League One/Championship merry-go-round managers... give me Roy Keane any day of the week.
At the very least it’ll be interesting to watch.