Having suffered excruciating relegations in their two previous top-flight campaigns, Roy Keane knew that he would need to change the mentality at Sunderland ahead of their 2007-08 return. It was a big challenge but the Cork man pulled it off, serving up Premier League survival with games to spare – and now he wanted to build on that achievement.
Thoughts had quickly shifted onto the next campaign, and despite a relatively encouraging return to life back in the big time the boss clearly felt that the squad needed some more work. He brought in several high profile names whilst working too on his side’s fitness, and a return to Keane’s former club Nottingham Forest on this day witnessed one of his more unorthodox methods for keeping the players on their toes.
Before that though, there were moves still to be made and regardless of two big money arrivals, El Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda, making their debuts at Keane’s old stomping ground the transfer business was still far from done. Chimbonda had followed his Tottenham Hotspur teammate Teemu Tainio to Wearside and on the morning of the game another Lilywhite switch edged a step closer, with Steed Malbranque undertaking his medical in time for the staff to then set off for the City Ground.
The deal was formally confirmed that evening with the match in progress, but the buzz of a new signing did little to lift the action above your typical preseason fare. Although this was their fourth warm up so far Sunderland were still getting up to speed, deploying a five man midfield at kick off and asking Daryl Murphy to perform the lone striker role. The forward pushed hard but was forced to feed off scraps before being replaced amidst a typical summer flurry of changes, and it was at the other end of the pitch that the Lads looked the most convincing.
Rumours had been circulating of another Spurs swoop, but with Younes Kaboul said to be mulling over his options after Juande Ramos had reportedly accepted bids from more than one suitor, Keane was being linked with a host of other defenders too. The capture of Bobo Balde and a return for Jonny Evans were both being heavily tipped, yet the speculation did little to unnerve existing options Danny Collins and Danny Higginbotham, both of whom put in strong showings.
This gave Sunderland a solid base, but on the odd occasion they were able to create an opening they found home keeper Paul Smith to be in good form – Higginbotham and Grant Leadbitter both forcing him into early saves. Robert Earnshaw meanwhile headed Forest’s best chance wide of Craig Gordon’s goal, with the Scot being another to make way in the second half and his replacement Darren Ward, himself a former ‘Tricky Tree’, then doing well to deny James Perch minutes after his opposite number had clawed away a clever attempt from Chimbonda.
Play was often stilted but the only goal came courtesy of a slick attack that saw Kieran Richardson arriving in the box to smash home a pullback from Anthony Stokes. Keane was no doubt pleased his men had taken the lead, but with around ten minutes to go he wanted to see more, and having brought all his substitutes on and despite Higginbotham not appearing to be injured he still withdrew the future Gibraltar international.
The theory was presumably that learning to adapt to a numerical disadvantage and cover the gaps may prove useful in light of a future red card. Sunderland were able to reorganise and hold out for the win, and through a quirk of the draw were back in West Bridgford less than month later for a League Cup tie; there were to be no sendings off in that one but the Black Cats did have to spread the workload again to get through extra time before confirming another narrow victory.
The similarities didn’t end there either – Keane once again splashed the cash on the day of the game to bring Anton Ferdinand to the Stadium of Light, and soon following it up by also signing former Sunderland youth product George McCartney from West Ham United too. The pair provided the defensive reinforcements the gaffer had been chasing, whilst two successes in trying circumstances over Forest suggested that his efforts to further improve the mindset were having an effect. It felt as if things were falling into place, but little did we know that behind the scenes some of the new boys were already rocking the boat…
Wednesday 30 July 2008
Nottingham Forest 0
Sunderland 1 (Richardson 71’)
Sunderland: Gordon (Ward 57’); Chimbonda (Bardsley 57’), Nosworthy, Collins (Luscombe 57’), Higginbotham; Diouf (Edwards 57’), Leadbitter (Whitehead 46’), Tainio (Stokes 57’), Richardson, Reid; Murphy (Chopra 57’)
City Ground, attendance 12, 573