Stephen Elliott remembers the Roy Keane that saved Sunderland's skins in 2006-07

Former Ireland striker sits down with Newstalk's Team 33

Roy Keane, Sunderland

Manager Roy Keane ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

A good pre-season doesn't always bode well for a new season.

And that's exactly what Sunderland discovered at the dawn of the 2006-07 season.

The Black Cats had just been relegated from the Premier League after finishing bottom, a full 15 points behind the 19th place side.

Club chairman and former Ireland striker Niall Quinn had taken on the head coaching role at a club where he was fondly looked upon by supporters after performing tirelessly up front.

And pre-season went swimmingly with four wins from four and no goals conceded - albeit against Forest Green Rovers, Rotherham United, Shelbourne and Carlisle United.

Ex-Ireland forward Stephen Elliott was part of that Sunderland squad that went down and would eventually return to the top flight at the first attempt.

This week, he was the special guest with Joe Coffey, Killian Woods and myself on Newstalk's Team 33, chatting about a range of topics from his career including his early days at Kevin Keegan's Manchester City after moving from Dublin; scoring freely in the 2003 FIFA Youth Championship for Ireland; playing for the senior side and how injuries later in his career would affect him.

You can listen to the full interview on the podcast player below or stream for free on iTunes: 

But the 32-year-old also looked back on the tumultuous time at Sunderland in the mid-2000s and as he recalled, the 2006-07 pre-season campaign had raised hopes that the club could make a swift return back to the Premier League.

"I remember that was the pre-season that the World Cup was on and Zidane got sent off when he headbutted Materrazzi. So we were at Bath University in pre-season and we won every pre-season game, albeit no disrespect but we weren't playing great teams," Elliott told us.

But there was a rude-awakening when the season started properly as a Sunderland squad packed with many Irish players aside from Elliott lost their opening Championship game 2-1 at Coventry City.

"Then we lost the second game, and then we lost the third game. And then we lost the fourth game and we were thinking 'What is going on here?' We were favourites to go straight back up and if we go back to the fans giving abuse, that wasn't a good time to be in Sunderland," he said.  

Roy Keane & Sunderland squad line out to support SHADES 2007 Campaign week 1st- 6th May, 2007.
Sunderland manager Roy Keane in support of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind/Specsavers Opticians SHADES 2007 Campaign week. Roy and the Sunderland players including Ireland Internationals David Connolly (fifth from left) and Stephen Elliott (far right) took time out of their historic and memorable week to don 'SHADES'. ©INPHO/Craig Connor

By August 28th of that season, the Black Cats hierarchy knew change was needed and they turned to former Manchester United and Ireland captain Roy Keane in his first managerial role.

But before he took the reins there was one more straw that broke the camel's back that would have been mildly funny if the circumstances weren't so dire for the club.

"It came to a head when we played Bury in the League Cup at Gigg Lane. We lost that as well and we had a man sent off - a Spanish lad who had just signed for us. Making his debut, he got sent off after about five minutes for a headbutt," Elliott recalls of a moment that Arnau Riera channelled Zidane and got himself red carded within four minutes of action.

"I remember looking over at Niall [Quinn] on the sideline and he'd given this chap Riera his debut. He'd bigged him up before the game and we had nothing to lose by trying him out. 

"Five minutes into the game, there's a throw-in and he was in front of me and I just saw him headbutt this guy. And I just thought 'he's headbutted him'. So bear in mind, we've lost our first league games and we're sitting rock bottom of the Championship, expecting to comfortably go up and we're going out to Bury in the League Cup and we couldn't get any lower.

"I remember sitting on the bus thinking that there are supporters waiting at the training ground to vent their fury."

The Saturday after that match, Quinn announced that his former Ireland team-mate Keane would be taking over as manager.

 

Sunderland manager Roy Keane gets off the team bus INPHO/Sportsbeat Images

Keane made a beeline for Elliott when he first arrived at the training ground, given that he knew the Dubliner from their time together with the Ireland team. 

"I would have been the only player at the club that he kind of knew. So I remember his first day, he walked in and he started speaking to me. We went on a walk-around the pitch and obviously because he knew who I was, he was chatting away and he was asking me about the lads. And I remember all the lads were going 'look at Roy's little mate,'" he laughed at the memory of the Sunderland squad giving him good-natured stick.

"I was still a little bit in awe of him at this stage. He was a big world name in the game," he added of a squad that as a whole were in awe of one of the most successful players of that generation. 

While Keane did get Sunderland back to winning ways, results weren't always good with some good runs peppered with defeats.

But from January 1st, they would lose just once under Keane and draw three times en route to a winning run that would take them to the very top of the second tier and promotion back to the Premier League.

Given they were bottom after four games, it was an extraordinary achievement from Keane and his players. 

"He was great company, Roy," Elliott remembers of the current Ireland assistant manager.

"It was a great season that year. When he first came in, he stuck with what he knew. He signed a lot of Irish players who he would have been with in the international squad - the likes of Graham Kavanagh, David Connolly, Liam Miller. Then he obviously went back up to Celtic and bought a couple of players. It was a good mix he had and we all got on really well and it showed on the football pitch that year." 

Sunderland's Stephen Elliott celebrates scoring the third goal against Leeds United during the Coca-Cola Championship match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture by Gareth Copley PA Archive/PA Images

Of course, like all managers, Keane could use the hairdryer as well when results went awry, although he had the ability to break the ice with a layer of humour.

"It's not really a hairdryer. If you don't perform, you knew about it. In fairness, all managers had that. But as a player you have to respect that because managers are trying to get a reaction," says Elliott.

One rule that he did want players to abide by was punctuality and one team bus incident is an example when a couple of players were late.

"He actually let the lads walk up right up to the bus and then as soon as they came, he drove off," Elliott chuckled in a tale he tells in full on the podcast, including some humorous car-pooling memories including the Irish contingent.

"I'm nearly sure they got right up to the door and he just said 'right, drive off' and the lads were just standing there."