Sunderland had certainly taken their time to replace Roy Keane long-term. Caretaker manager Ricky Sbragia had steadied the ship, taken off the shackles and registered some impressive results initially – which probably lulled chairman Niall Quinn and new Sunderland majority shareholder Ellis Short into a false sense of security.
Sbragia was a reluctant number one, and that showed more and more as the winter turned to spring, and Sunderland’s battle for survival grew more and more tense.
Quinn had opted not to appoint Sam Allardyce as Keane’s replacement in the immediate aftermath of the Irishman’s departure from the Stadium of Light. It seemed strange not to at the time: Allardyce, who’d been Quinn’s preferred choice before appointing Keane, was out of work after leaving Newcastle, and practically begged for the Sunderland job live on TV.
His advances were rejected, Big Sam went to fellow relegation contenders Blackburn, and finished a comfortable five points ahead of Sbragia’s men at the final reckoning.
Last-day survival – by virtue of Newcastle’s inadequacies rather than our own talent – had meant another season in the top flight, and with Sbragia resigning in the aftermath of the final-day defeat to Chelsea, Quinny searched for his third managerial appointment. Fourth if he included himself.
Attention quickly turned to Sbragia’s replacement, and one man seemingly had overwhelming support in the boardroom as well as among the fan base: Steve Bruce.
While Bruce had always come in for some stick when managing opposing teams at the Stadium of Light due to his ‘Geordie roots’, it was always good-natured rather than any real ‘hate’. And he was a manager on the up.
Aged 48, Bruce had already amassed a good level of managerial experience – managing more than 500 games at Sheffield United, Huddersfield, Birmingham, Crystal Palace and Wigan (twice) – and was still viewed as a potential long-term successor to Alex Ferguson at his former club Manchester United.
Wigan had paid a world record £3m in compensation to get him from Birmingham, and had helped establish the Latics in the Premier League, finishing 11th with a team that included the likes of Lee Cattermole, Paul Scharner, Amr Zaki, Charles N’Zogbia, Antonio Valencia, Titus Bramble, Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa.
Bruce had established a strong reputation in the transfer market – finding ‘hidden gems’ from far and wide, which was a stark contrast to Roy Keane’s approach to buying players – so it made sense on many levels for Sunderland to focus their attentions on appointing Bruce as the new manager.
So, on this day 14 years ago, Bruce and Quinn were dotting the ‘I’s’ and crossing the ‘T’s’ on the deal to bring Bruce to the Stadium of Light. Bruce had cut short his holiday in (surprise surprise) Portugal to fly in to finalise the deal after Dave Whelan had reduced his compensation demands when it became clear that Bruce wanted to head north, and Sunderland weren’t prepared to meet his £3m figure, and a fee believed to be in the region of £2.5m was agreed.
Bruce, who was earning £45,000 at Wigan, agreed a new three-year deal with Quinn, and plans were being drawn up to ‘make Sunderland a Premier League force to be reckoned with’.
Latics players Paul Scharner and Antonio Valencia were already being linked in the press to follow their manager to the Stadium of Light, with Bruce ‘ready to be backed with significant funds’.
Tottenham’s Darren Bent, Portsmouth’s Peter Crouch and Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko were all said to be targets too, with European football the aim.
After just surviving relegation, hopes were high for the north-east’s only top flight club...