Sunderland’s momentum was gaining by the day. Keano had shipped some players out, brought some players in, and coerced some others into finding form and fitness.
One of those new arrivals was Stern John. The Trinidad and Tobago striker had been plying his trade for Coventry – he scored against us in the season’s opening game – but had been tempted to join up with his international colleagues Dwight Yorke and Carlos Edwards, both of whom had been brought in by Keane, too.
This one felt like a bit of a litmus test. We’d been in excellent form – since early November, we’d played 19, winning 12, drawing five and losing only two, a run that had seen us jump from 19th position to fourth.
West Brom had – like us – been relegated from the top flight the season before. In the reverse fixture, we’d managed to get our first points of the season – at the fifth attempt – before the watching Keane, and with Kevin Phillips making his debut for the Baggies, after having a last-minute change of heart and rejecting the chance to return to the Stadium of Light.
In the away dugout that day had been Bryan Robson – however, the former England captain had been sacked after winning only three of the opening nine, and the highly rated Hibernian manager Tony Mowbray had been appointed in his place.
After initially having a good impact – his first game in charge, at his former club Ipswich, saw West Brom win 5-1 with a Phillips hattrick, and the following two games also resulted in two wins – away at Palace and at home to Wolves.
A run of one win and five defeats in six games followed, but from 1 December Mowbray’s team had lost just one in 15 games, registering 10 wins, and lifting themselves up to third place in the table; Sunderland three points behind.
West Brom had quickly gained a reputation for scoring goals and playing attractive football, while Sunderland were becoming known for a steely determination and keeping on right to the end – traits Keane had possessed in abundance.
That ‘never give up’ attitude was in perfect evidence the week before – Liam Miller heading home a last-gasp winner against Derby – but that shouldn’t detract from the quality of our play. We were playing some superb stuff in spells, and were becoming increasingly attractive to watch.
While Keane had cut a surprisingly calm character on the sidelines in most games so far, he had referee Dermot Gallagher in his sights from the half-hour mark. West Brom’s Richard Chaplow escaped without a card after a foul on Carlos Edwards, forcing Edwards out of the game.
When asked after the game if that had been his most animated afternoon as a manager, Keane said:
Maybe. But it’s Dermot’s fault. Dermot was supposed to retire last year.
He could afford to enjoy himself, as his team had produced a performance that outclassed West Brom and could have – should have – been more resounding on paper than the 2-1 scoreline suggests.
By the time Edwards had departed, Sunderland were one up – Dwight Yorke was put through by John’s pass, and calmly finished past Dean Kiely.
Just after the break, it was John himself who doubled the lead, heading home unmarked from Dean Whitehead’s corner.
West Brom did pull one back – Darren Carter, who’d been on loan at the Stadium of Light a couple of seasons earlier, scoring past Darren Ward, but Sunderland held on for the points – much to the despair of Tony Mowbray.
Famously, Mowbray said:
I want to be gracious in defeat but I know who was the better side on the day - the team with more control and trying to force the game.
Sunderland are a very organised, defensively set up team and you’ve got to give them credit for that.
But over the next 10 games I would suggest we will end up with more points than them because of the way we play. We will score more goals than them.
They did score more goals than us as it went – 81 to our 76 – but after drawing level on points with them with only ten games remaining, we were 12 points ahead when the fat lady sang – leaving West Brom to mount an ultimately unsuccessful playoff campaign.
West Brom 1-2 Sunderland
Yorke 23, John 49; Carter 72
The Hawthorns, 23,252
West Brom: Kiely, McShane, Clement, Davies, Robinson, Koumas, Chaplow, Greening (Carter 55), Koren (Gera 55), Kamara, Phillips (MacDonald 55). Not used: Daniels, Albrechtsen.
Sunderland: Ward, Simpson, Evans, Nosworthy, Collins, Edwards (Hysen 41), Whitehead, Yorke (Miller 73), Stokes, Connolly, John (Murphy 62). Not used: Fulop, Leadbitter.