When Sunderland’s team was announced an hour before kick off at Oakwell there were some surprising omissions.
Anthony Stokes, who’d turn in what was probably one of his best games for the Lads in the 2-1 win at West Brom the previous week, had been left out, as had Toby Hysen, the Swedish winger who’d played the best part of an hour at the Hawthorns as an early sub for Carlos Edwards. Dwight Yorke was missing, too – and he, together with Stokes and Hysen, were expected to be in the starting XI. They were conspicuous by their absence – as was Marton Fulop, whose place on the bench was taken by Trevor Carson.
With smartphones still a little while off, we were left wondering in the stands what had happened to the trio – injuries in training, was the general presumption.
A packed away end welcomed the striding Keane after the teams had emerged – a clenched fist acknowledged the travelling support, who roared their appreciation in return.
It’s difficult to put into words just how much Keane had galvanised the club – and the city. We felt unbeatable. The confidence we had going into games was sky high. Chests were puffed out, we were proud to be Sunderland again, and unless you experienced it, it’s impossible to appreciate the true extent of the job he did.
When Keane’s linked with a return to the club – as he was last year – you have those people who are under 25 who can’t believe we’d even consider such a ‘dinosaur’, and those older who (maybe through rose tinted glasses, or maybe not) would love to see Keano return, just because of the sheer impact he had last time round.
It was on the crest of this wave that we arrived at Barnsley – fresh from a 2-1 win over promotion rivals West Brom, whose manager, Tony Mowbray, insisted would finished higher than us come the season’s end.
In Barnsley’s team that day was highly rated Derby defender, Lewin Nyatanga, who’d spent a thoroughly unimpressive loan spell with us earlier in the season, and two players who’d have spells at Sunderland without making a first-team appearance. Full back Paul Heckingbottom had been signed by Peter Reid from Manchester United in the mid 90s and spent four years at the club without making an appearance, before heading to Barnsley via Darlington, Norwich, Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday, while goalkeeper Nick Colgan would spend the following season on the Premier League bench for Keane’s side, again without seeing a minute of action.
For Sunderland, Liam Miller came in for Yorke, while Grant Leadbitter took what would presumably have been Hysen’s position in replacing the injured Edwards, and Ross Wallace came in for Stokes. On the bench, the lesser-spotted Tommy Miller (who’d scored the only goal of the game against us at the Stadium of Light earlier in the season while on loan at Preston), Kenny Cunningham and Stephen Wright made up the numbers.
The game itself was a tough test as the Lads looked to record our ninth win in 11 games. Dean Whitehead, David Connolly and Stern John all went close in the first half, but the scoreline remained goalless as the interval came.
Midway through the second half one of the ‘replacements’ – Grant Leadbitter – scored, rifling a right foot shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box, right in front of the packed away end.
David Connolly added a second at the death, picking up a long header out of our defence, twisting and turning, and putting the ball past Colgan to make it 2-0.
The three points lifted us up to third, but much of the talk after the game surrounded the absentees.
It turned out Dwight Yorke had missed out for legitimate reasons. Stokes, Hysen and Fulop had been left back in the north east after failing to make the 4.15pm pick up time the day before. At 4.17pm the bus left on Keane’s instructions, with the players arriving at the pick up spot by 4.20pm.
Despite them setting off in hot pursuit, Keane’s message to them was simple. Don’t bother.
After the game, Keane said:
Punctuality was spelled out on a number of occasions when I came here. I was late, yes, many years ago and I was punished. I will give players the benefit of the doubt.
There had been that lacklustre approach, especially when I first got the job, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, the line has been drawn and the players are well aware of that.
The players have been told on numerous occasions the importance of being on time.
We finished training on Friday at 12.30 and we left at 4.15 - if you can’t get home, get your bag organised and get in your nice car and be on time there’s something drastically wrong.
I’ve worked and played with players for 12 or 13 years and they were never late once. I’ve been at Sunderland six months and it has happened on numerous occasions; late for training, late for team meetings. If there is a genuine reason, I haven’t got a problem with that. If that has been the case, you move on. But if it happens more than once or twice there’s something seriously wrong.
You have to get these things right to be successful. Even if I’d lost the game, I had to make a stance for what was right.
The team has to come first and absolutely nothing will interfere with that.
Ultimately, the fans have got to trust me in what I’m trying to do and that’s produce a winning team.
The three players missed out and there’s a good chance they would have played. I’m not one to drag something out, they’ve been punished and they could be involved for Tuesday. But until the penny drops, I will constantly try to do what is best for the football team.
If you work and train hard you are going to get your chance. If you mess about, you will suffer. It’s very, very straightforward. It will be dealt with and it’s history; we move on. Some lads make genuine mistakes and I know they’ve not killed anybody. I can be quite a forgiving person but ultimately the team comes first.