Mick McCarthy had a bit of a thankless task when you look back on it, didn’t he?
He was the victim of his own success in many respects: he’d taken something resembling a bunch of misfits cobbled together after the 19-point season, a club devoid of confidence, and guided us firstly to the playoffs and then to the title.
The job he’d done was incredible – one I think is really underrated in the history of Sunderland because of what happened the following year – but 18 years ago, he was still in the process of trying to build a side that could at least try to compete in the Premier League on a very, very limited budget.
And this is where McCarthy’s critics, quite rightly, take aim.
He didn’t have much money to play with – but what he did have was spent atrociously. Kelvin Davis, Jon Stead and Andy Gray took up the vast majority of transfer fees spent, while the horrendous Alan Stubbs pocketed a large chunk of the salary budget, only to cheer when we conceded a goal.
Back on this day in August 2005, however, McCarthy was convinced he’d added some real quality to the squad after fighting off competition from clubs in France and Italy to secure the signing of a French midfielder who had lined up at under-21 level along the liked of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet.
Christian Bassila had verbally agreed on a two-year deal at the Stadium of Light after leaving Strasbourg; however, Auxerre and an unnamed Serie A club had tried to hijack the move.
But, after some time on the phone, Bassila was convinced of the delights of Wearside, and had signed for the lads.
McCarthy told the Northern Echo:
I don’t really know if someone made another offer or lodged an interest. I’d heard he’d signed for Auxerre and he was talking to them. It’s very strange. Then we signed him and it was done,” said McCarthy, who revealed he is unlikely to further add to his squad before Wednesday’s transfer deadline.
Did I intervene? Well I spent a lot of time on the phone so if that’s intervening then I suppose I did, I just did my job, I didn’t let it go, I kept ringing up and pestering them.
When I played in France, my team-mates told me I spoke French like a Spanish cow. I think they understood the Yorkshire accent okay - and it’s worked here.
But I’m not really interested now. Strange things happen in transfer dealings, all that matters now is that he’s here.
The 6ft 4in defensive midfielder had played a handful of games for West Ham earlier in his career, so he wasn’t a complete Premier League novice. After Jeff Whitley and Carl Robinson had played the majority of the previous season in the centre of midfield, McCarthy was focused on strengthening there and had already added Ipswich’s Tommy Miller.
Bassila looks like he’ll fit in here, he gives us another option, he’s a type of defensive midfield player that we haven’t got.
He’ll give us something different that will perhaps allow some of the more forward thinking players chance to express themselves and a bit more solidity in the centre of the park.
I know how fit players are in France - having played there myself - and they look after themselves. He might not have done as much training as he wanted over the last two weeks because of the situation. But we’ll weigh things up.
The new arrival started the fifth game of the season – making his debut at Chelsea alongside fellow debutante Justin Hoyte – as the lads succumbed to our fifth consecutive defeat.
He started the following three games, against West Brom, the Boro, and West Ham and things did pick up a bit. We were unbeaten, notched five points from nine, and the optimists among us grasped to a few straws we thought we saw.
As it turned out, in those three games, we’d accumulated exactly a third of our points for the season.
In that West Ham game, Bassila went off injured just after the half-hour, and while Tommy Miller gave the lads a lead on the stroke of halftime, Benayoun equalised in the second half.
Four successive defeats followed before he returned to the team – a miserable 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa, for whom Kevin Phillips opened the scoring – and by then, the rot had well and truly set in.
He played regularly around Christmas – coming off the bench in our second victory of the season, at West Brom in January – but as we faded from the Premier League he faded from contention altogether; making the bench only once as Kevin Ball tried to regain a semblance of pride.
He exercised a clause in his contract allowing him to leave for free if we were relegated, and had had spells in Greece and Germany before finishing his career in France.
Was Bassila’s injury a turning point in our season? Maybe, but probably not. While he was defensively capable, he left a bit to be desired on the ball, and we didn’t have anywhere near the quality needed to stay up. But his absence certainly didn’t help.