When Mick McCarthy left the Stadium of Light in March 2006, he couldn’t have imagined his return would have provoked so much media attention.
McCarthy had been sacked by Bob Murray as Sunderland capitulated to an embarrassing relegation – although there was certainly an element of blame-deflection from the chairman who’d failed to back McCarthy, who’d worked absolute wonders in his two full seasons in charge, in the top flight.
The way McCarthy spent the meagre transfer kitty he was given, however, left much to be desired – however, the majority of supporters could see where the blame lay, and it wasn’t at the Yorkshireman’s doorstep.
In normal circumstances, McCarthy’s return with his new club, Wolves, would have been the key talking point of Sunderland’s fixture 16 years ago today. However, the presence of Roy Keane added a whole new dimension altogether.
Since the pair’s infamous showdown in Saipan, they’d spoken only twice – firstly, when McCarthy made a call to buy Neill Collins, the young centre back he’d brought to Sunderland from part-time football in Scotland, for Wolves, and secondly – with significantly more media scrutiny – when Keane took Sunderland to Molineaux a few months earlier.
The ‘truce’ had been sealed, both men speaking – publically at least – from a script of professionalism, bygones, and moving on. Behind closed doors, who knows – the reality is both men, strong-willed and self-certain, were unlikely to truly forgive each other for what had happened less than five years prior.
On the field, Keane had Sunderland riding high, sitting in second place after 11 wins and three draws in our previous 14 games. If you want a definition of ‘momentum’, this was it.
McCarthy had taken over at Wolves from Glenn Hoddle the previous summer, and was having a solid campaign with the play-offs firmly in sight – although a 6-0 home defeat to Southampton had tempered Black Country spirits somewhat.
Keane and Sunderland had higher aspirations, and with just six games remaining, it was getting to what Keane’s former manager Fergie called ‘squeaky bum time’.
Of course, that didn’t faze Keane. He’d just been awarded manager of the month for the second consecutive season, and if he was feeling the pressure he certainly wasn’t showing it.
There had been a significant overhaul of players at the Stadium of Light since McCarthy’s departure. Danny Collins was one of a handful that had established themselves under Keane after playing under McCarthy, and before the game he said:
They’re different managers completely but both know what they want and they’re not an easy touch. With some managers, players probably think they can get one over on them.
But with Mick, and certainly the gaffer we’ve got now, that’s not the case. The lads are going out there and giving 100 per cent.
Training’s not hugely different.
Mick joined in a lot more, the gaffer likes to sit back and take it all in. He studies the lads and sees how they’re all getting on. That’s probably the only difference.
He sits and watches on a Friday and he says he’s enjoying watching training. He did join in but he lost a couple of games so I think he’s hung his boots up now.
You just have to make sure you’re on time for training!
McCarthy named Neill Collins in his starting lineup, partnering another former Black Cat, Gary Breen in defence. A third former Sunderland centre back, Jody Craddock, was on the bench.
For Sunderland, Keane brought Carlos Edwards, Stern John and Ross Wallace back into the team, replacing Grant Leadbitter, David Connolly and Toby Hysen from the team that had beaten Cardiff 1-0 at Ninian Park last time out.
After a slow start, Sunderland grabbed the lead through Daryl Murphy. The striker collected a Wallace throw in, turned a defender and slotted the ball beneath keeper Matt Murray.
Stern John’s effort hit the woodwork, and that was the closest Sunderland came to doubling the lead, until Wallace – who’d scored the winner from the bench in the previous fixture – nodded home Murphy’s cross just after the hour.
Andy Keogh got one back for Wolves, a smattering of panic set through the stand, but Sunderland rode it out, claiming our 39th point from 45.
The managers shook hands at full time, just as the Tannoy conveyed the news that promotion rivals Birmingham had lost.
After the game McCarthy said:
It’s not good when I lose wherever I am, so that’s really my overriding emotion. But I enjoyed being back and I have a lot of happy memories of this place. It was nice to see one or two of the players I signed, but I am pissed off that Murphy decided to score. But in fairness to Roy he’s made some good signings. Jonny Evans looked an absolute star and Nuggsy was superb.
Keane, meanwhile, had this to say:
It’s like with any other manager, shake hands and move on. We’re in good form and the players are in good spirits. That matters to me as much at the moment as our form. I still think they [Derby and Birmingham] are in the best position, but if we win all our games then we’ve got a chance.