Despite the fact that sixteen long and often turbulent years have passed since Niall Quinn, the Drumaville Consortium, and of course, Roy Keane arrived to breathe new life into the club, I can still remember the events of the long, hot summer of 2006 as though they unfolded yesterday.
Perhaps four years in League One have made me even more wistful for better times, but nostalgia has always played a big part in following this football club, so forgive me as I gladly revisit a period that began on a low but ended on a high.
After eight months of self-deprecation and soul-destroying results, 2005/2006 had concluded in the most dismal, if predictable, fashion imaginable.
Another Premier League relegation, with a then-record low points tally, had crushed the morale of the supporters; Mick McCarthy had paid for our dismal form with his job, and it was Kevin Ball who was tasked with trying to ensure that our inevitable plunge through the trapdoor was as painless as possible.
Fortunately, new hope arrived shortly thereafter, as Quinn returned to the club he had graced as a player, this time in a different role, and immediately set about putting the pieces back together and rebuilding Sunderland AFC from the ground up.
As the 2006 World Cup was in full swing, closer to home, all focus was on what the future held for us, and how we would go about trying to compete in the second tier.
At the time, I distinctly remember feeling that promotion was nothing but a distant ambition- I simply wanted us to regain some pride, shake off the image of being a laughing stock, and start winning some bloody football matches again.
Early misses in the transfer market at this time included Kenny Cunningham, Robbie Elliott, and William Mocquet, and when we kicked off against Coventry in August, with Quinn in the dugout, it was obvious that things would not improve instantly, despite some encouraging pre-season results.
Four straight league defeats did not represent the instant ‘new dawn’ for which we all hoped, and the table made for grim reading following a defeat at the hands of Southend.
Nevertheless, things were still settling down, and it was during this time that a key signing arrived in the shape of Darren Ward, who joined from Norwich City on a free transfer.
The vastly-experienced Ward would play a crucial role in providing solidity at the back, and when he was joined by the late and much-missed Marton Fulop in January 2007, the goalkeeping position was well and truly covered.
As things began to pick up a little bit of speed, the 21st of August saw Tobias Hysen sign from Djugården IF in his home country of Sweden for a fee of £1.9 million.
Hysen, a nimble and tricky winger- and the son of former Liverpool defender Glenn- would make fifteen appearances during the season, scoring four goals, including a well-taken strike against Leicester.
Following a morale-boosting home victory over West Brom, which was followed by Keane’s installation as manager, the 31st of August saw a blur of frenzied transfer activity that left everyone breathless, intrigued, and excited about how this team was going to shape up, and whether Keane could mould them into a competitive Championship outfit.
In came Ross Wallace and the returning Stanislav Varga, who were signed from Celtic for just over £1 million each. They were joined by the late Liam Miller, who switched from Manchester United, and Graham Kavanagh and David Connolly, who we lured from Wigan.
Perhaps the most surprising arrival was that of Keane’s ex-United teammate Dwight Yorke, who upped sticks from Sydney, jumped on a plane, and took the plunge back into English football at the age of thirty four, after some cajoling from the boss himself, as we would later discover.
These lads were some of Keane’s most crucial purchases during his time as manager, and with the exception of Varga, whose second tour of duty at the Stadium of Light wouldn’t be as successful as his first, they all played a key role as our poor run of form levelled off, and we slowly started to take positive steps forward.
Wallace settled in quickly, and became a reliable creative force in the Championship in terms of both goals and assists. Yorke added some big-game experience and guile, and Miller, Connolly and Kavanagh were the kind of solid, no-frills pros that Keane would put a lot of faith in.
In his second autobiography, ‘The Second Half’, Keane alluded to watching the West Brom game from the stand and thinking to himself that the squad wasn’t bad, but was simply low on confidence and desperately in need of a boost.
His influence was enormous, but the influx of new players, many of whom weren’t scarred by the previous season’s relegation, completely revitalised the club.
I always felt that the likes of Dean Whitehead and Nyron Nosworthy benefited from the new additions, too. You could their confidence start to increase, and as the season unfolded, Whitehead rose to the challenge of captaining the side with aplomb.
Considering that it unfolded in a somewhat haphazard nature- certainly on deadline day, the summer of 2006 was, in hindsight, a highly successful one.
The players recruited would form the core of the squad that took us through the opening half of the season, and although our form was often patchy and results quite mixed until 2007 dawned, you could see that the ‘sleeping giant’, as Quinn labelled us, was certainly beginning to stir once again.