Has there ever been such a marked turnaround at Sunderland than the 2006/07 season?
After a dismal relegation, the hope that accompanied Niall Quinn arrival on Wearside was quickly – thankfully, temporarily – extinguished by a futile pre-season search for a manager, and a desperate opening to the season.
After an away defeat to Coventry on the opening day we endured hapless performances at the Stadium of Light to Steve Bruce’s Birmingham and Ian Holloway’s Plymouth. And, as we trudged out of the ground after Nick Chadwick’s late winner for Argyle had sent us to the bottom of the league in front of 24,377, it was difficult to imagine where we went from here.
Indeed, if you’d told us that eight months later, there’d be more than 44,000 packed into the ground to see Sunderland virtually clinch promotion, you’d have sent the bearer of such foolhardy predictions directly towards the chaps in white coats.
And yet, on this day 15 years ago, that’s the position we were in.
What had changed? Roy Keane of course.
The former Manchester United captain took to the management of Sunderland like a duck to water. He immediately oversaw two mightly impressive performances – away at Derby and at Leeds (two clubs, ironically, inextricably linked to his mentor, Brian Clough) – and, while the middle bit of the season was one of consolidation, it was in January that the whole thing really sparked into life.
From New Year’s Day onward, we lost only once – away at Colchester, a fixture which directly preceded this one – and climbed towards the summit of the Championship table.
Fourteen wins and three draws in 18 games had marked a dramatic turnaround, and an expectant crowd gathered at the Stadium of Light – the momentum built up by the team radiating to the whole region, too.
Standing between Sunderland and a huge step towards the Premier League were Burnley. The Clarets were managed by former Sunderland manager-in-waiting Steve Cotterill (what’s the matter Cotterill, don’t you know how to spell shite?), and featured two former Sunderland players in their starting line-up. Steve Caldwell had captained Sunderland under Mick McCarthy and had been an excellent player for us in his couple of years at the club – scoring the goal versus Leicester that sent us up – but had been somewhat surprisingly jettisoned by Keane shortly after the Irishman’s arrival.
If Caldwell was still highly thought of at the club, the other former Sunderland player in the Burnley side tipped the balance at the other end of the scale. Andy Gray, son of former Sunderland player Frank, had endured (or had we endured) a disastrous spell at the Stadium of Light the previous season. Signed to spearhead our Premier League attack, Gray had been so far out of his depth you’d not even bother calling the lifeguard and was a sign of just how badly we’d failed the year before.
Our defeat at (not Phil Parkinson’s) Colchester meant promotion wasn’t mathematically possible tonight, however, a win would extend our lead and put promotion in our own hands for the first time.
It was a three-way race for two automatic places. With two games left each, Birmingham were on 83 points, we were on 82 and Derby 81.
If we won tonight, and Derby failed to pick up anything at Crystal Palace 48 hours later, we’d be up.
It was tight.
Looking ahead to the weekend, Keane said:
I’ve got no plans to watch the Derby game, but I won’t be escaping from it either. Nowadays, everybody has mobile phones so you’re always contactable.
I didn’t watch Birmingham’s win at Wolves last weekend either. I was away with the family but I was getting messages through with the score.
It’ll be like that again, but it’ll only matter if we win the game against Burnley. Playing ahead of everyone else will only count if we win. That’s certainly the plan, then we’ll see what happens with the others.
And it was a plan that certainly came off – although probably not in the way Keane would have ideally liked.
In a white-hot Stadium of Light atmosphere, Sunderland took the game to Burnley from the off, and both Anthony Stokes and Carlos Edwards went close early on – Edwards, in particular, should have scored, but hit the keeper’s legs when clean through.
Before the quarter-hour was up, Sunderland took the lead, and it was Daryl Murphy, enjoying a breakthrough time under Keane, who opened the scoring. The young Irishman tapped in from David Connolly’s cross to ignite the Stadium of Light.
Five minutes later, it looked like everything was going to plan as referee Trevor Kettle pointed to the spot after Wayne Thomas pulled down Connolly in the box. Connolly, who had been enduring a rare goal drought of seven games, but been reliable from the spot, saw his poor effort tipped around the post.
And, of course, we were made to pay.
And, of course, it was a former Sunderland player who made us do so.
Andy Gray was brought down in the box by Darren Ward as the half-time drinks queues began to form and confidently dispatched the spot-kick.
And it looked as though Burnley were going to spoil the evening altogether, as Wade Elliott scored a cracker from distance to put the away team in the lead.
Of course, looking back, we all know how it played out – but at this point, a defeat would have meant we were still relying on other teams to go up. After succumbing to a defeat at Layer Road only a few days earlier, had our season come crashing down completely?
Fortunately, we didn’t have too much time to ponder such thoughts. Jensen in the Burnley goal brought down Carlos Edwards four minutes later and the ref awarded the third penalty of the night.
Connolly took the ball again, to the audible apprehension of 44,000 collective gasps. He sent the ball flying to exactly the same place he had done in the first half, but this time the keeper wasn’t there to save it.
Keane sent on Toby Hysen and Grant Leadbitter in an attempt to claim the vital win, and the magic moment came on 80 minutes.
Picking up Daryl Murphy’s pass, Carlos Edwards surged towards the Burnley goal, and sent the ball flying past Jensen.
The whole place went wild. We moved onto 85 points with one game left, knowing Derby could only get 87 if they won both of their remaining games.
There was still work to do in our final game at Luton, but if Palace did us a favour in a couple of days’ time, that workload wouldn’t be quite so heavy.
Sunderland 3-2 Burnley
Sunderland goals Murphy 14, Connolly (pen) 54, Edwards 80.
Burnley goals: Gray (pen) 39, Elliott 50.
Sunderland: Ward, Simpson, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins, Edwards, Miller (Leadbitter 73), Whitehead, Murphy, Connolly (John 86), Stokes (Hysen 71). Subs not used: Fulop, Yorke.
Burnley: Jensen, Duff, Harley, McCann (Gudjonsson 29), Caldwell, Thomas, Elliott (Spicer 73), Djemba-Djemba, McVeigh, Gray, Jones (Akinbiyi 58). Subs not used: Coyne, Coughlan