Week after week, Ian Porter's detailed reflections on each Sunderland match provide superb analysis for subscribes to the Blackcats list, home of some of the most intelligent comment on our club to be found anywhere. In the third part of our end-of-term report series (Pete Sixsmith now reverts, as intended, to the fourth part), Ian* identifies the 1-1 draw at St James' Park, in a game we ought to have won by half time, as a key turning point in a season that had another tremendous show of guts and consistency from Danny Collins (pictured) but also stuttered – and nearly fell very heavily – after earlier spells of promise …
The season started with a mixture of optimism and pessimism.
Kenwyne Jones missed the start due to a serious knee injury suffered while playing for Trinidad & Tobago against England.
Roy Keane was in the market for players capable of taking us to the next level. Strangely, his targets were four players from Spurs: Chimbonda, Malbranque, Kaboul and Tainio. We were also linked several times with Darren Bent. However, Liverpool took Keane and Spurs decided to keep Bent until a suitable replacement could be found.
Among supporters, Kaboul didn’t inspire, and Spurs supporters didn’t rate him, and it was a relief for many when he eventually chose Portsmouth. Similarly, Chimbonda, had fallen out with the supporters over his attitude. On the face of it, Malbranque and Tainio seemed good signings.
The other addition was Diouf from Bolton. His arrival met with a mixed reception. Many supporters disliked his attitude and didn’t really rate him as a player.
David Healy joined from Fulham with a reputation of a prolific goalscorer at international level, but an indifferent club record at Leeds and Fulham. After the first game of the season, the really inspired signing that supporters were looking for arrived in the shape of Djibril Cisse, on a season-long loan with us having first refusal on his permanent signing – and there was a headed goal on his debut at Spurs.
The defence was supposedly bolstered by the return of George McCartney, and the signing of Anton Ferdinand, with the January loan signings of two central defenders, Tal Ben-Haim and Calum Davenport, potentially signalling the end of Danny Collins’s role as either central defender or left back.
Funding for the season's signings was credited to Ellis Short, resources from the Drumaville consortium having dried up as a result of the recession in Ireland.
Probably the most satisfying home win of the season was the 2-1 victory over Newcastle. Our new crowd favourite Cisse gave us the lead before Newcastle equalised against the run of play but midway through the second half, we took the lead again, courtesy of a stunning Kieran Richardson free kick.
The game also saw the return of Kenwyne Jones from injury, bringing widespread anticipation of a deadly new strike force. But as the season progressed, nothing could have been further from the truth.
In December, after the Bolton 4-1 home defeat, speculation was rife that Roy Keane was on the verge of resigning. After a few days of considering his position, and following discussions with Niall Quinn, he finally decided to resign immediately after a conversation with Ellis Short.
Roy didn’t think Short, or anyone else for that matter, had the right to question his signings, where he lived or how much time he spent at the training ground.
Despite a supposedly impressive list of applicants for the vacant manager's position, first team coach, a reluctant Ricky Sbragia, was appointed to the hot seat, seemingly his reward for a relatively successful run of games post-Roy Keane, and the support shown for him by both players and directors.
Among his first moves were to sell Chimbonda and Diouf – highlighted as disruptive influences and having had disputes with Keane – and send several other players out on loan until the end of the season.
After a reasonable run of results, Premier League survival was beginning to look achievable, with some quarters both inside and outside the club starting to talk about Uefa qualification.
Throughout, Danny Collins remained in the team, a result of injuries to other players, his versatility and ultimately his own consistent, totally committed performances. Collins went on to win the supporters' player of the year for the second year running and also the official player of the year award.</strong
After a 1-1 draw at Newcastle at the beginning of February, the results began to stutter and the goals dried up alarmingly. The chances of Jones and Cisse forming a prolific partnership seemed more remote than ever – but many people, including Sbragia, believed it would only be a matter of time before they would “gell” and we would climb the table again.
Just how wrong that belief turned out to be! Only similarly bad runs of results for other teams around us kept us out of the relegation zone, with only one win in the final 13 games. At one stage, we were actually playing with the same midfield formation that got us promoted two years ago though