When I think back to the Sunderland teams in the noughties, Dean Whitehead is one of the first names of players from that time that springs to mind.
Playing through the eras of Mick McCarthy and then Roy Keane, the former Oxford midfielder experienced a rollercoaster of emotions as a player at the club, making over 200 appearances in a Sunderland shirt.
Whitehead was a competent midfielder who was industrious and versatile, playing right back many times for the club - especially when we returned to the Premier League under Keane.
When he arrived on a free transfer from Oxford United in June 2004, Whitehead was an integral part of Mick McCarthy’s squad reshuffle. He and Liam Lawrence were two unknown quantities who went on to become key players.
So good were his performances that Whitehead earned himself a new and improved contract during the season. He played a key role throughout in a position where there was a lot of competition from the likes of Sean Thorton, Jeff Whitley and Carl Robinson.
As we all know, Sunderland’s 2005-06 season was one to forget, but Whitehead’s performances were one of the few bright sparks, continuing to perform well. He scored three goals and only missed one game - earning himself another improved contract, and reinforcing Sunderland’s eagerness to keep him.
Whitehead enjoyed playing under Mick McCarthy, as he told RR:
Mick trusted in your ability.
He would really help you along and bring the best out in you. If you had any concerns or any worries, he was an open and honest person.
You could approach and speak to him and players respond to that. He would have those discussions and he’d put your mind at ease.
His approach to players gave you confidence, and any young player going into a huge club needs that from his manager. He helped us all massively.
There were not many Lads who lasted after Roy Keane took over from his former Republic of Ireland manager - but Whitehead was one of the players who became vital to them both.
By the time of Keane’s arrival there was speculation over the future of the midfielder, with Premier League Reading sniffing around him but Whitehead stayed on, becoming one of the key cogs in the machine under the new manager.
During the promotion season in 2006-07, Whitehead made 47 appearances. He was named in the PFA Player of the Year, came second in the club’s Player of the Year award, and was the captain of the side.
He will always be remembered as one of the key men during the Roy Keane era - an era which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy:
With Roy looking over us, everyone was just working to be on top of their game.
His drive and his winning mentality got injected into the team and that mentality rubbed off on every single one of us and pushed us.
With the ability Roy had to bring out the best in the lads, it made you feel almost unbeatable at times. We were going into games expecting to win.
The former Oxford man continued on at Sunderland until August 2009. He left the club amassing over 200 appearances for the club - making him one of the most consistent players around the club at this time.
He departed for Stoke City in 2009 and went on to play for Huddersfield Town, before ending up in coaching - most recently joining the backroom team at Cardiff following a stint with Turkish side Besiktas.
Happy Birthday, Deano!