Moving into the Stadium of Light in the summer of 1997 had been the catalyst for four successive years of relative success.
Although the opening season resulted in heartbreak at Wembley, it was one that saw Peter Reid’s new look side accumulate a sum of 90 points (at that point the most we’d ever totaled in the second tier) and gave us nights such as the play-off semi-final second leg in our new home’s inaugural season.
We then backed that up with a record breaking season that saw us swat everything aside while we notched up 105 points on the board as we claimed the title with a swagger - a swagger that we took into the Premier League as we finished 7th in successive years.
This was all built on a style that complemented the partnership of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn while having a grit that made us difficult to beat - but as our third season in the top flight came around things were beginning to come apart of the seams. With only three victories in the second half of the season we finished one place and four points above the bottom three.
Quinn had began to have recurring back problems and the the Republic of Ireland international was rarely fully fit despite making 24 league appearances in the starting XI during 2001-02 - 14 appearances from the bench also tells a story. It was clear that Reid was attempting to plan to replace his strike partnership, but the search wasn’t quite going to plan.
Around £3.5million was spent on Bordeaux’s French international striker Lillian Laslandes in the summer of 2001, but after only five appearances in the starting XI all season, it was clear the Frenchman wasn’t the answer.
Highly-rated David Bellion had been recruited in the same summer from Cannes as an 18-year-old, but it was clear it would be too soon for him to become a first team regular, even after his first season. Then there was Cameroon international Patrick M’Boma, who joined on loan from Parma towards the end of the 2001-02 season, but hadn’t quite impressed enough to convince Reid the move should be made permanent.
After a successful World Cup for the Republic of Ireland in the summer of 2002 it was announced that 35-year-old Quinn, who was heading into the final year of his contract, would become player-coach at the Stadium of Light - suggesting that his role on the pitch would be even more limited than the previous season, which came as no surprise.
This meant it was a crossroads for Peter Reid as a solution to the problem of who would add goals while sparking Kevin Phillips back into life would need to be found and the search began almost as soon as the season closed. Links with Carsten Jancker, Jon Carew and Peter Crouch had all come and gone without any solid news to raise hopes, but on this day in 2002 it was confirmed that a bid from Sunderland had been accepted for a striker.
Leeds United had accepted a bid of £10million for 21-year-old Robbie Keane, who was fresh from staring in the far east at the World Cup alongside Quinn. A Leeds spokesman confirmed:
The Black Cats have agreed a fee for Robbie Keane after meeting Leeds United’s asking price for the Republic of Ireland striker, who was so impressive in the summer’s World Cup Finals. Sunderland has now been given permission by Leeds to begin talks with the player and his representatives to complete the final details of the transfer.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Leeds were without a manager after the departure of David O’Leary and with Martin O’Neill having been installed as favourite to make the move from Celtic to Elland Road, Keane would wait and see what developed during his extended holiday following his summer exploits.
Meanwhile Quinn talked about impacting the atmosphere in the dressing room at the Stadium of Light in his new role as player-coach:
I was shocked when Peter asked me to get involved with the coaching and I’m looking forward to it. I would not have done this for anyone other than Peter after what he has done for me over the years. My main task will be working on team spirit. It is an aspect of football that needs to be right.