Sunderland's current great hope alongside the man who helped to restore such faith and optimism on Wearside back in 2006/07
Last Saturday evening, following a beverage or two, I stumbled across my copy of the 2006/07 season review, a DVD that hadn't seen the light of day since, well, 2007. Having removed the thick shroud of dust that had encased the box it was time to gorge on excitement and hope that was restored to the club during that season.
I began tweeting the games, goals and garbage players with reckless abandon before time caught up with me and I found myself asleep on the sofa at 02:00 on Sunday morning. Not one to leave a job unfinished it, I decided to give the pivotal season a closer look, through sober eyes.Before you can truly appreciate the magnitude and importance of the 2006/07 season it would be unconsidered not to first take into account the previous season and the turmoil the club found itself in during the pre-season period. Having returned to the Premier League as winners of the Championship, Mick McCarthy recruited such marvels as
Daryl Murphy, Jonathan Stead, Tommy Miller, Martin Woods, Andy Gray and the unlikely Cult Hero Nyron Nostworthy to "strengthen" his side. We should have known that the writing was on the wall at this point. To be fair to Mick he wasn't exactly given much of a war chest to work with but bloody hell we were screwed.
McCarthy led Sunderland through a tumultuous, no, disastrous season and was given the chop in March of 2006 and was replaced by club legend Kevin Ball for the remaining run of games. SAFC were unsurprisingly relegated with an embarrassing fifteen points and just a solitary win at the Stadium of Light.
Hope was restored to the region over the summer break as the rumour mill was put through its paces, with speculation of a Niall Quinn led consortium of Irish businessmen set to rescue the club from a seemingly bleak and desperate future. Thankfully the talk was more than just pie in the sky and the takeover was finally completed in
late July, which triggered activity in the transfer market despite the lack of a manager and a successful, unbeaten, pre-season record playing absolutely nobody of any real note, although I can remember making the trip over to Carlisle that summer which got a little out of hand...
Quinn himself stepped into the dugout, more in an act of desperation and duty rather than one that would hint at a future career change. Despite the presence of the great man himself Sunderland couldn't have got off to a worse start, first losing to Coventry having initially taken the lead before crashing to further defeats to the hands of
Birmingham City and Plymouth Argyle. In typical Sunderland fashion, just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, SAFC travelled to Southend United and were put to the sword, 3-1, a result which made it four defeats from four games and found Sunderland suffering the ignominy of propping up the league.
Gallows humour was an essential characteristic for any Sunderland fan by now as in typical SAFC fashion, things indeed did get worse as we crashed out of the League Cup to Bury, a side who were sat bottom of the football league at the time, losing 2-0 on the night with Quinn signing and former Barcelona B captain Arnau Riera earning a red card on his debut.
Riera would not be the only dud that Quinn would bring to the side however as in a reaction to the club's slump he moved to bring in William Mocquet and Tobias Hysen to bolster the squad... Whilst I can remember being initially impressed with Hysen it would be fair to say that neither really set the world alight and Quinn's stock as a manager was, well, non-existant.
Thankfully for poor Niall he was soon able to relinquish the surplus stress and responsibility of the managerial role as he put aside his differences with a modern day footballing icon and appointed Roy Keane to the helm of his sinking ship. The media frenzy and furore amongst the fans that this appointment brought was something that I had never previously witnessed and it was hard not to be swept away with the new found enthusiasm and optimism Keane's arrival brought - it was simply infectious. Whilst unproven as a manager, Keane was a respected and
revered name in the English game and overnight reconnected the club and the fans, there was a real feeling of togetherness, that we were in this together and more importantly, we had a figurehead to guide us.
Keane's arrival also brought with it a manic transfer deadline day as Sunderland faced a race against the clock to secure the signatures of Dwight Yorke, Ross Wallace, Stan Varga, Liam Miller, Graham Kavanagh and David Connolly, a real indicative sign of the faith that the club put in their new boss. Looking back they were farily shrewd signings as Yorke and Kavanagh brought a wealth of experience to the squad, Miller and Wallace bringing guile and creativity and David Connolly would go on to finish as the league's top goalscorer.
Keane's arrival and strengthened squad brought and instant turnaround to the club's fortunes on the pitch, with two away wins on the bounce against Derby County and Leeds United before Tobias Hysen rescued a point against Leicester, Keane's first home game. The Irishman only had to wait a week however for his first home victory as a memorable Grant Leadbitter goal proved to be the match winner against Sheffield Wednesday. SAFC saw out September in 14th position.
October would not prove to be a successful month however as Sunderland crashed two four defeats in six, including a disappointing 4-1 defeat away at Preston North End which saw the former Black Cat Danny Dichio open the scoring with his first goal for PNE at the forty-first attempt. The squad incurred the wrath of their fiery manager for the series of below par performances and they came up with the reaction he was looking for as results picked up across November and December, including another Leadbitter blockbuster in the Boxing Day victory over Leeds United.
The New Year period was a real turning point for the side in 2005/06 you feel. The club succumbed to a disappointing home defeat to Preston North End in the last game of the calendar year, as David Nugent nodded home the only goal of the contest for the travelling side, a fixture I can scarcely remember if only just because of the freezing conditions at the SOL. The club would bounce back however on New Years day with a victory on the road against Leicester, with Hysen and Connolly among the goals. This win would push SAFC into the dizzy heights of 11th but few could have predicted the renaissance that would follow.
January was a memorable month for Sunderland fans as not only would the club remain unbeaten but a 2-4 away victory over Sheffield Wednesday would also forever be known as the birthplace of the Keano chant as the homeside's PA system played The Beatles' "Hey Jude" as the two sides emerged for the second half. I can vividly
remember the goose bumps as I sat at home, glued to the radio and dumbfounded by the noise coming from the travelling fans who continued their new favourite chant well into the second half, completely drowning out the commentary in the process.
February would again see Sunderland go unbeaten, a month which saw a Carlos Edwards screamer against Coventry at the Stadium, Anthony bloody Stokes' first goal for the club in a 0-2 victory at Plymouth and what a strike it was, before SAFC thrashed Southend 4-0, a game which saw a Stern John brace. Goals from Anthony Stokes and Stern John... these truly were weird and wonderful times.
Into March and Sunderland unbelievably kept up their unbeaten run, a streak which put the club well into contention for a play-off spot, a truly remarkable feat given the start to the season we had endured. Super Jonny Evans grabbed his first goal for the club following his arrival on loan in a 2-0 win over Hull City. Evans proved to be a superb addition to the squad following the New Year playing with a wise head on young shoulders and impressing thoughout his stint.
Sunderland would win the opening three games of April by the same 2-1 scoreline, dispatching Wolves, Southampton and QPR respectively before their stunning unbeaten run in the league was undone at Colchester United. The televised Southampton game will always stick out in my mind as the lads came back from a goal down to earn all three points thanks to a stunning effort from Carlos Edwards and a dramatic late Grant Leadbitter drive. This win put Sunderland top of the league and I was rewarded with a monumental hangover the following day.
SAFC quickly bounced back from the disappointing result at Colchester with a hard fought, action-packed victory over Burnley at the Stadium of Light, a game unforgettable thanks to that Carlos Edwards wonder-strike. The three points sealed Sunderland's promotion but the league title was sealed on the last day of the season as SAFC romped to victory, 5-0, away at sorry Luton Town who were already relegated from the league. A sensation end to a remarkable season that went a long way to putting Sunderland back on the map and the start of the evolution into the club we are today thanks to Niall Quinn, his band of merry rich Irishmen and of course, Roy Keane.