As soon as promotion to the top flight had been confirmed for Roy Keane’s Sunderland, attentions quickly turned to bolster the squad in readiness for a Premier League campaign.
While the surge up the table to clinch the championship had been hugely impressive, it’s probably fair to say it owed a lot to Keane’s man management and the way he galvanised the squad more than anything else. The team, player for player, simply wasn’t ready to take on the Premier League.
Jonny Evans’ addition had been pivotal, but he’d returned to Manchester United after his successful loan spell, and the rest of Keane’s signings – which had included Connolly, Varga, Kavanagh, Miller, Fulop and Wallace – couldn’t be considered proven top-flight quality. The one that could – Dwight Yorke – was in the twilight of his career, and question marks surrounded his ability to compete regularly in the top division.
So, it was no surprise to see Keane target established Premier League players as part of the next chapter of his revolution, and two names occupied the headlines in late May and early June.
The first, Jussi Jaaskelainen, was Bolton’s keeper who’d been at the club for a decade. While Darren Ward and Marton Fulop had ‘done a job’, Keane wanted a top keeper. Inspired, no doubt, by his former manager Brian Clough, who broke transfer records to sign Peter Shilton for Nottingham Forest, and extolled the importance of having a brilliant keeper, Keane was fixed on a custodian who could genuinely contribute points to the end-of-season tally.
Jaaskelainen, who was in the prime of his career at 28, had been superb for Bolton as Sam Allardyce had guided them up the league and established them in the Premier League – but with Big Sam having left the Reebok to join the mags, Keane was hoping to capitalise on the uncertainty that came with Big Sam’s assistant – Sammy Lee – taking charge.
However, Keane was scuppered by Sammy Lee on not one, but two, occasions.
While on this day 16 years ago, we retained strong hope of bringing Jaaskelainen in, another major target decided on a transfer to the Reebok, rather than a return to Wearside.
Gavin McCann had been signed by Peter Reid as a 20-year-old from Everton, and had quickly established himself as a key component in a team that took on all-comers for a couple of seasons at least. He famously was called up and capped by Sven when the Swede took charge of England, but was also part of the underperforming squad that Howard Wilkinson relegated (I’m not apportioning any blame for that relegation on Reid or Mick McCarthy!).
With Thomas Sorensen and Kevin Phillips, McCann left the club after relegation to join Aston Villa – David O’Leary sending £2.25m north in exchange for the midfielder, and McCann spent four seasons in the Midlands, playing more than 100 games in what was an injury hit spell.
By that point, Martin O’Neill was in charge at Villa Park, and young Craig Garder had taken McCann’s place in the team – so the 29-year-old was on the lookout for a new club.
Keane had earmarked him as the perfect player to lead the club’s top-flight comeback, and it was rumoured McCann himself was keen on the move, but ultimately opted for a £1m move to Bolton – leaving Keane’s search for an established midfield general back at square one.
McCann’s move to Bolton wasn’t the most successful – he signed a five year deal but played fewer than 100 games in three seasons before having to retire through injury. His transfer was also subject of a court case, with agent Tony McGill claiming he’d been cut out of the transfer deal, multiple parties and payments involved, and Sammy Lee found guilty of lying to the court.
Probably a good one to miss out on, in hindsight.