Stephen Elliott had arrived at the Stadium of Light as a relative unknown in the summer of 2004. The 20-year-old Manchester City striker had made two brief sub appearances for Kevin Keegan’s team during their first season at Eastlands, as it was then more commonly referred to, but left the club after his contract expired. He joined Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland for a tribunal-set fee of £125,000, with a further £250,000 payable should he and the club achieve certain milestones, such as promotion and international caps.
As part of the Eire set up, Elliott had been on Mick McCarthy’s radar for a while, but may not have enjoyed as much first team action in his maiden season if David Connolly hadn’t turned down a move to Sunderland in favour of Leicester. Connolly.
It was the second time Connolly had rejected a move north; his 1997 rejection prompted Peter Reid to sign his Watford teammate Kevin Phillips instead. The nomadic striker had been expected to join up with the team and his former international manager when they returned from their pre-season tour of the US, only to have a last-minute change of heart and sign for the Foxes instead.
This was at a time when the McCarthy/Keane ‘dispute’ was still hot – for those too young to live through it it’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of that falling out at the time. Connolly was one of the few players who’d publically sided with Keane, and potentially that influenced his decision.
Either way, as the season started, Elliott was third choice striker behind Marcus Stewart and Kevin Kyle, and a serious injury to the Scotsman early in the campaign propelled Elliott into the starting lineup on a regular basis – and boy, did he seize the opportunity.
He’d gotten into double figures by the time the new year rolled around, scoring goals of all types, but it was his dynamic play that caught the eye as much as his finishing. He was an all-round striker, linking play up superbly well and never giving defenders a moment’s peace.
His attitude took him to the fans’ hearts as much as his goalscoring, however – he was a livewire, never giving up, and had a tenacious streak too – all of which combined to ensure he quickly made his mark.
After January 1, however, Elliott had gone off the boil a little. In a scenario that echos Ross Stewart’s current travails, Eliott had still scored five goals but had lost a bit of that spark he’d displayed earlier in the season, prompting McCarthy to sideline him for a few weeks, young striker Chris Brown taking his place.
McCarthy told The Northern Echo:
I think the rest will have done him good. He has played a lot of football given what he was used to as a reserve-team player at Manchester City.
When you play reserve-team football, you play far less games than we do in the Championship.
Add in the cup games, and consider the intensity which these games are played at and what’s at stake, and it takes its toll on young players coming into the squad.
I think he needed a break. He certainly looked fresh and sharp when he came on at Ipswich.
He has done a fantastic job. He has been a breath of fresh air as well at times.
Look at some of the goals he has scored - especially the two he scored against Wolves, they spring to mind immediately.
That’s something you can’t really coach - to control the ball in one move and swivel and smash it in the corner, or to come in on the inside and bend it in.
His ability is great and he still has a freshness in his approach to the game. He will try different things.
As it was, Elliott remained on the bench the following day, as Sunderland took on a Leicester side featuring David Connolly – but Sunderland’s Irish striker would certainly return rested and revitalised, and would go on to play a defining role as Sunderland went on to clinch the Coca Cola Championship title.