After promotion back to the Premier League in 2005, Sunderland were in serious need of reinforcements – particularly up front.
For a championship-winning team, our firepower had been OK, nothing more, nothing less.
We’d scored 76 goals in 46 games – nowhere close to matching Peter Reid’s 91-goal haul in 1999, but significantly better than the 59 goals that saw us promoted under Reidy in 1996.
The goals had been shared around, with 14 players hitting the back of the net during the course of the campaign. Only two reached double figures, however – Stephen Elliott with 15 and Marcus Stewart with 16.
Youngster Elliott had impressed in his first season in ‘real’ football. He’d been given an unexpectedly leading role in the team after Kevin Kyle’s early-season injury ruled him out for the campaign.
It could be argued Kyle’s injury was a blessing in disguise for the outcome of that season. (Not for the player, or for SAFC longer-term I believe. I always liked ‘Kyler’ and he was developing into a genuinely effective target man towards the end of the previous season. That injury did for him, and he could have been a great player for us. Anyway, I digress…)
Kyle’s injury forced McCarthy to throw Elliott in the deep end, and partner him with Marcus Stewart, and as a consequence we were forced to play a far more attractive style of football than we may have otherwise done.
As the goalscoring suggests, it was attacking to a point – we enjoyed some impressive victories – but the lack of a genuine goalscorer in a promoted team tends to spell trouble lying ahead. And that trouble was compounded by the premature departure of the 32-year-old Marcus Stewart, who decided his time at Sunderland was to come to an end, and signed for Bristol City.
It compounded a goalscoring problem – one that McCarthy was very keen to solve.
He’d already nabbed Jon Stead from Blackburn. Stead’s viewed in retrospect as one of our worst ever strikers, and justifiably so. But back in 2005 he was one of the country’s hot striking talents.
The England under-21 cap caught the eye of a number of top-flight clubs while at Huddersfield, scoring 18 goals before a January move to Blackburn for £1m.
He’d impressed initially at Rovers, scoring six goals – including winners against Fulham, Manchester United and Everton – as Blackburn avoided relegation. That summer, Blackburn signed Craig Bellamy and other attacking reinforcements, and Stead’s time on the pitch was limited.
When he signed for Sunderland it was seen as a coup – a young, highly talented who’d proved himself to an extent in the top flight and hadn’t seen the action he probably deserved.
Redemption. Hope. Talent. Potential. It’s easy to convince yourself of these things, isn’t it?
And so, after securing Stead’s signature, McCarthy turned his attention to a strike partner for his new recruit – and it was Wolves’ Kenny Miller who was the focus of Mick’s gaze.
Miller had scored the opening goal in Wolves’ 3-1 defeat at the Stadium of Light the previous season, and was a highly-rated, all-action goalscorer. The 25-year-old had scored 20 goals in the Championship, and was keen for a move up the leagues.
McCarthy had already had a couple of bids – £1m, and £1.25m – turned down by Wolves boss Glenn Hoddle. But the former England gaffer seemed to think it was a matter of if, not when, Miller moved.
I’ve got to speak to Kenny next week. There are a couple of personal issues in there as to why there might be a move.
Unfortunately, a move for Miller – a player I always thought would have done really well at Sunderland – didn’t eventuate.
Miller stayed at Wolves, top-scored for them again, and joined up with Celtic on a Bosman at the end of the season.
And we ended up with Andy Gray.