Salut! Sunderland’s 13 years, SAFC’s 13 managers. A Sixer series: (2) the Sbragia interlude

Ricky Sbragia

Monsieur Salut writes: no fairy godmother has appeared – though one did briefly hover – and the site is still in winding down mode. Pete Sixsmith, undeterred, presses on with one last series. He is tracing the 13 Sunderland managers who coincide with Salut! Sunderland’s 13-year history.

After a rousing start with the Roy Keane era, Sixer moves on to his successor …


Winston Churchill once described Clement Atlee as “a modest little man with much to be modest about”.

As usual, Churchill was a little bit right and a whole lot wrong. Atlee was a modest man but had nothing to be modest about as he implemented the creation of the NHS, the Welfare State and the mass nationalisation of transport, utilities and some major manufacturing. I heartily commend John Bew’s book, Citizen Clem for those who want to read about a real politician rather than the cartoon posers who masquerade as men of vision and achievement nowadays.

Some could argue that Ricky Sbragia could well fit this description. Anyone who remembers the self-effacing grin on his face after a pre-Christmas 4-1 win at Anlaby Circle as the players shouted “Give him the job” to the BBC interviewer as they came off, could do little but go along with that picture of modesty.

He came in as caretaker when Roy Keane walked away after the embarrassing home defeat to Bolton Wanderers, a game where expensive misfit (we know what they are like) Johan Elmander managed to score twice for The Trotters.

Ricky had been brought back to the club by Keane in 2007 as chief coach from Manchester United, where he had played a major part in the development of the likes of Darren Fletcher, Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley.

His first game was back at Old Trafford where a brave and well organised defensive performance held United (who went on to win the league) for 90 minutes until Nemanja Vidic stole the winner in added time.

Even El Hadj Diouf had a decent game that day, tracking back and tackling, while Anton looked the better of the two Ferdinand brothers on show.

The next two games under Ricky saw the shackles lifted off as West Bromwich Albion were dispatched 4-0 at the Stadium of Light and Hull City suffered on Humberside as we won 4-1 and the clamour went up from all and sundry to give him the job…..

Unlike his predecessor, Ricky Sbragia had not had a stellar career. Born in Stirlingshire and brought up on the Castlemilk housing scheme in Glasgow, he had played as a defender for Birmingham City, Walsall, Blackpool and York City, where he played under Dennis Smith and Viv Busby and with Marco and John McPhail.

Castlemilk: Ricky’s beginnings

A loan spell at Darlington was enough to prompt him into retirement and he took up coaching with the Minstermen. Jonathan Greening and Richard Cresswell flourished under his coaching and Mick Buxton brought him to Sunderland in 1994 to look after the youth team.

There were some good players coming through at the time (Michael Bridges, Sam Aiston, Darren Holloway) and some who didn’t quite make it – David Preece, Mark Angell, Stephen Brodie to name a few, so he did a solid job with the younger players.

He also had a reputation as a man of some integrity, something that is rarely needed in modern football.

He stayed until 2002 when he went back to Old Trafford and then he joined Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers as first team coach before Roy Keane brought him back to Sunderland as a member of his coaching staff in 2007.

He always seemed to be happy at Sunderland and was able to work with the many players that Keane brought in during his spell in charge.

Some like Grant Leadbitter, Carlos Edwards, Dean Whitehead and Danny Collins would have been easy to work with. He would have had his work cut out with others, one of which would undoubtedly been Diouf, but he had the respect of the players and they clearly wanted him as the new boss – not always a good sign in football.

After the narrow defeat at Old Trafford came the two excellent wins over West Bromwich Albion and Hull City with four goals being scored in each game. A turgid Boxing Day draw with Blackburn Rovers put the brake on things and then a disappointing 3-0 loss at Goodison Park had one or two of us wondering whether this was the right move.

He was appointed as full-time manager on December 27 on an 18 month contract with the usual specific brief that any incoming Sunderland manager gets: “Get us out of this League/Keep us in this league.”

Tal Ben-Haim

He brought in two players, the Israeli international Tal Ben-Haim and Calum Davenport (before he was stabbed) as it was made perfectly clear by new owner Ellis Short that he would not commit new funds until we knew whether we would be a Premier League or Championship club. A harbinger for the future, I think.

There were some decent results; we took important points from Newcastle and Middlesbrough who were down there with us, but a heavy defeat at the Hawthorns, where one of his York City graduates, Jonathan Greening, did well, pushed us back into trouble.

The last 14 games yielded nine points and we would have gone down had the Baggies not been so bad, the Smoggies not been so supine and the Mags not been so munificent in allowing us to take four points off them.

When the last day of the season arrived, we knew that even if we lost, we would stay up as long as Newcastle United (away at Aston Villa) and Hull City (at home to Champions Manchester United) lost.

Consequently, our game with Chelsea had a bit of a carnival atmosphere about it once we heard that that wonderful midfield player, careful driver and all-round egghead, Darron Gibson, had put them ahead, there was no chance of The Tigers tweaking the tail of either the Red Devils or the Black Cats.

Darron Gibson in ManU days

So, even if our nearest and dearest won, we were safe. If they drew, they stayed up on goal difference and Hull slipped away. And we all know what happened….

Chelsea, under Guus Hiddink, were far superior to us. For his last game as Sunderland manager, Ricky picked this team;

Marton Fulop; Phil Bardsley, Danny Collins, Calum Davenport, Anton Ferdinand; Steed Malbranque, Teemu Tainio, Dean Whitehead, Grant Leadbitter, Kieran Richardson; Kenwyne Jones

Subs: Nick Coglan, Paul McShane (currently at Rochdale), Andy Reid (for Tainio 65), Carlos Edwards, Daryl Murphy (for Richardson 87 and due at the SoL on Boxing Day), David Healy (for Malbranque 76), Djibril Cisse.

I think the fact that Murphy and Healy were sent on rather than Cisse indicates how difficult things had become behind the scenes.

Anyway, at half time it was Hull going down and the Tyne-Wear combo stopping up. Chelsea went ahead through Nicholas Anelka, Kieran Richardson equalised and Salomon Kalou restored the Pensioners’ lead. A late Kenwyne Jones goal made it 2-3 but nobody cared. The news of a Damien Duff own goal putting Villa ahead just before half time had everyone excited.

When the final whistle went, the 40,000 Sunderland supporters in the crowd went wild. Chelsea fans looked on in amazement as people hugged, danced and chortled. There was a young boy with a smile as wide as the River Wear and a man walking away from the ground who said he was sorry for them and then burst out laughing. Oh, happy day…….

Meanwhile, Ricky Sbragia slipped away, left the manager’s job and became chief scout. He had done what was asked of him but had visibly aged in the process.

Why anyone wants to become a manager is sometimes beyond me although Jose Mourinho’s £11.5m salary may just explain.

Messrs Quinn and Short got down to sorting out a new man.

They came up with Wallsend’s finest: Steve Bruce.

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