Great Football League Teams 21: Sunderland 2006-7
Our Great Teams series reaches its adulthood with a look back to Roy Keane’s Sunderland stars of 2006-7, our second analysis of a Black Cats line up. Things haven’t gone too swimmingly for the seafood-averse Irishman since then, but Michael Graham of the splendid Roker Report website and deviser of that website’s Captain’s Blog feature reminds us here of how dominant that Mackems side was that year:
Sunderland fans have grown accustomed to their football allegiances being the root of a tempestuous roller-coaster of emotion. It just comes with the territory. I remember being told as a child showing early interest in football that “there are three ways of doing something: the easy way, the hard way, and the Sunderland way”. It is ingrained in every one of us to expect nothing less. But even we were unprepared for the journey Roy Keane would take us on in the 2006-7 season.
When the Sunderland players reported for the start of pre-season training in the summer of 2006 following a Premier League relegation of record-breaking humiliation, there was no manager and nothing but a skeleton coaching staff. What was more, with prospective new owners of the club entering into a phase of due diligence, there was little the outgoing chairman was in a position to do about it. It wasn’t until the end of July that the new owners were in place and the club able to move again, but it wasn’t just the club that had it’s eye set on movement. The first three players who Niall Quinn addressed following gaining control of the club all demanded transfers. Things would only get worse for Quinn when a failure to attract any of his managerial targets to the club meant he was forced to take the reigns himself.
And so this is how our tale begins. A shell of a club, battered and humiliated, without any real pre-season to their name, haemorrhaging their better players, and under the leadership of a rookie and reluctant manager. Certainly not the setting one would expect to find as the opening scene in a tale of a Great Football League Team, but there-in lies the beauty.
In true Sunderland style, just as we thought things could only get better, they suddenly got worse. Niall Quinn was a legend both on the pitch and in the community for Sunderland. He had scored derby goals at St James Park, he had terrorised the best defenders in the land with Kevin Phillips, he had even funded the expansion of the local hospital, and now he had taken responsibility for the city’s very heartbeat – its football club. He was welcomed back to the club like a gallant knight atop a white stallion. There was only one problem – he was a hopeless football manager. His tenure in the dugout lasted just six games, and it consisted of 4 straight league defeats and a cup humiliation at the hands of league two Bury.
Enter Roy Keane. Keane had originally declined Quinn’s offer to take up the vacant managerial position at Sunderland in the summer but, disheartened by his own struggles, Quinn returned with a second offer and a fresh determination. Keane was in the stands to watch his countryman’s managerial swan song, and his mere presence was enough to lift the club to their first league win of the season. The appointment was confirmed within days and was followed by a flurry of deadline day transfers. Sunderland fans watched with jaws ever descending closer to the floor as no less than six new players arrived at the club during the course of the day. Liam Miller, once billed as the heir-apparent to Keane himself for both club and country, arrived from Manchester United. Stan Varga returned for a second spell at the club from Celtic and was joined on his journey by jinking winger Ross Wallace. Some proven Championship pedigree was ensnared from Wigan in the form of seasoned campaigners Graham Kavanagh and David Connolly, and having his enthusiasm for the game reignited by participating in the 2006 World Cup, Dwight Yorke decided to accept Keane’s offer to return to England from Sydney for one last soiree.
Due to international fixtures, we had to wait over a week to get a first glimpse into our new-look team, but oh how we embraced the opportunity when we could. 5,000 Sunderland fans made the trip to Derby County and the scenes outside Pride Park as the team bus arrived was more akin to Cup Final day than an early September second-tier slog. Hundreds of fans surrounded the players as one by one they made their way into the stadium. Inside the ground the atmosphere and anticipation built as we learned we would be watching five debutants. Typically, the first half ended with Derby taking the lead. This is what we call “doing it the Sunderland way”, for those wondering. But re-energized by half time and the legions of fans packed into the end they were now attacking, Sunderland finally got going. A quick-fire double from Chris Brown and Ross Wallace turned the game on its head and victory was assured. That was followed by an even more convincing midweek away win at Leeds, and suddenly in the blink of an eye the apathy that had engulfed the club for so long had lifted, shaken free by the impact of Roy Keane’s legendary ability to inspire. We were finally moving. We were on our way.
That was the hope, anyway, but things settled down quickly and we started to re-familiarise ourselves with the sinking feeling of defeat. Of our next ten fixtures, half were lost, and Sunderland found themselves entrenched in a position of genuine unfamiliarity – mid-table. Even a subsequent unbeaten run of six games, of which four were won, was not enough to propel us into the leading pack. It did, however, provide a genuine turning point. In mid-December we made the journey to Turf Moor to face Burnley. Two Kyle Lafferty goals had the hosts cruising, and Sunderland don’t do comebacks. Or so we thought. Grant Leadbitter, a local lad with an eye for goal from midfield had given us a glimmer of hope with ten minutes remaining on the clock by halfing the deficit and David Connolly completed the come back in the final minute with a half-volley of real quality. Something had changed, and we could all sense it. In chasing an unlikely result, Sunderland were relentless and fearless. This was our first glimpse of the sheer character that was to inspire our season.
If Keane had roused the sleeping juggernaut at Burnley that day, from January he got it moving and picking up speed. When we left the Stadium of Light frustrated and cold after losing to Preston at the end of December, little did we know we would taste defeat again in the league just once more before the end of the season. Of the next twenty league games, all but four would be won. The transfer window had opened and Keane was able to compliment his squad. Carlos Edwards, a rangy and quick winger with the natural glide of an athlete arrived from Luton, and would be joined by his Trinidad and Tobago team mate Stern John to provide some strength up front. Anthony Stokes, a young Irish striker at Arsenal for whom big things were predicted arrived despite interest from Celtic. But perhaps the greatest impact was made by a young and gangly centre back from Belfast called Jonny Evans. Evans had already achieved international recognition, but was still relatively unknown at the time but highly rated by Manchester United, and it didn’t take him long to show us why. He formed an imperious central defensive partnership with Nyron Nosworthy. Converted from full back, Nosworthy possessed remarkable strength and pace but lacked the brain to be a reliable presence at the heart of a defence, but the pair meshed brilliantly with Nosworthy’s ability to physically dominate perfectly complimenting Evans’ razor-sharp reading of the game. Evans’ Manchester United team mate Danny Simpson would later arrive on loan, make the right back spot his own, and complete Sunderland’s recruitment for the season.
With Evans and Edwards in particular appearing to complete the jigsaw, Keane now had the quality to go with the character he had instilled in his team. An injury-time Liam Miller header won a crucial three points against promotion-chasing Derby at the Stadium of Light before goals from Dwight Yorke and Stern John sealed victory at another of the chasing pack, WBA, the following week. Momentum was building yet still there were those who did not believe. Following his side’s defeat, WBA’s manager, Tony Mowbray, bitterly boasted his team would be the ones laughing at the end of the season due to scoring more goals and getting more points. They would do neither. Further points would be won by late goals in a scrappy home game against Stoke and in spectacular fashion at Southampton by Carlos Edwards, who was developing a taste for the spectacular, and Grant Leadbitter. But Grant Leadbitter and Nyron Nosworthy were not the only players Keane had inherited who were discovering a new lease of life. The much maligned Danny Collins had won fans over with a string of steady performances at left back, Daryl Murphy was a striker who’s inconsistencies were less damaging at this level and who’s flashes of quality were more frequent, and Dean Whitehead, the captain, was a driving force of consistency in midfield.
Due to the slow first half of the season, the remarkable post-Christmas run did no more than put Sunderland in with a chance of promotion. By no means did it make it certain. It transpired that we would contest the two automatic promotion positions with Birmingham and Derby, with a spot in the lottery of the play-offs the consolation prize for the loser. Despite suffering our first defeat of the calendar year at Colchester in late April, our penultimate game of the season provided a chance to seal promotion in front of the live TV cameras on a Friday night against Burnley. By now, Keane’s juggernaut was full speed but there was no room for error or bad fortune, and all looked like it was going to plan when Daryl Murphy side-footed Sunderland into an early lead. But Burnley hadn’t come to be the clowns at someone else’s promotion party and after we squandered the chance to extend the lead with a penalty, Burnley got one of their own and scored it. When a brilliant Wade Elliott strike from distance found the top corner to put the visitors into the lead, it genuinely looked like we had blown it. But not Keane’s Sunderland. Not THIS Sunderland. A second Sunderland penalty was awarded, and the Stadium of Light fell into nervous hush as, incredibly, the man who missed the earlier chance from the spot, David Connolly, showed immense courage and determination to stick this one home. Game on! But a draw wasn’t good enough. It would leave us at the mercy of the results the following day and place our destiny in the hands of others. I am told that 15 minutes passed between Connolly’s show of intestinal fortitude and what I am about to describe, but I have never been able to believe it. I was sure the clock was broken as it seemed to skip forward a minute at a time, not a second. But Carlos Edwards, the man who had developed a taste for the spectacular, was about to deliver the defining moment of our season. Striding forward on the end of a counter attack created by Murphy and Leadbitter’s clever play in their own corner, Edwards dispatched a 20 yard drive into the top corner of the net like an Exocet missile. The 44,000 crowd lost themselves in the kind of delirium that can only be attained when in the presence of something truly special. Promotion had been achieved in the most fitting of ways.
That season was my favourite of all the seasons I have spent following my club. I watched a team which was slowly assembled, a team comprising of the villains of the previous campaign who had humiliated the club, lost souls, journeymen, and loanees making their first steps into their careers, utterly transform the club from shamed bottlers to iron-willed winners. They lifted the apathy that had engulfed the entire place and replaced it with pride and belief, and they achieved promotion in style despite giving everyone else a huge head-start. Due to that promotion, it was a team who did not stay together for long, but what a team it was. Darren Ward’s safe hands and spectacular saves, many of which defied his small frame and creaking back. The colossal defensive platform provided by Nosworthy and Evans, and supported by Simpson and Collins. The midfield drive of Whitehead, the goals of Edwards and Leadbitter, the craft of Liam Miller, and the jinking of Wallace. The somewhat enigmatic Murphy and the beachball-size stones of David Connolly, up front. And, of course, at it’s head, Roy Keane, who somehow discovered a formula to instil his trademark sheer force of will into his team. I salute you all (except Simpson, because he now plays for the Mags) as a genuinely great football league team.