Michael Walker: Sunderland miss out on ‘box office’ appeal

The past is not all bad - there’s Liam Miller in it and there are lessons to be recalled

In the course of a fraught Wednesday trying to decipher differing pieces of information on Wearside regarding Roy Keane and Sunderland, someone altered the pace of everything by pointing out that it was the fourth anniversary of the death of Liam Miller.

And suddenly you stop. You step back, look at your little world in comparison to Miller’s cancer and tragic loss aged just 36. You think of Miller’s family, his parents and what dawn on Wednesday meant for them.

But also – it cannot be denied – there was also a smile inside. It was at the thought of a particular Miller goal and moment when he and Keane were together on Wearside moons ago, reshaping themselves and their new club.

It was a February day, too, February 2007, three quarters of the way through Keane's first season at Sunderland. Keane had signed Miller from Manchester United in those manic last hours of the August transfer window when Graham Kavanagh, David Connolly, Stan Varga, Ross Wallace and Dwight Yorke also burst through the door. Miller made his debut on Keane's debut and Sunderland won 2-1 at Derby County. It was lift-off.


There were days and weeks after that when Sunderland were not soaring, though, and they ended 2006 12th in the Championship. By late February they were up to fifth, but then drew 1-1 at Birmingham City due to a 90th minute equaliser.

Four days later it was Derby again. The season had 12 games left; Sunderland had to win but it was 1-1 as the game slid into injury-time. Then Grant Leadbitter crossed from the left into the Derby area one last time and Miller, all 5ft 8in of him, rose above two defenders to flick it in.

The Stadium of Light let out a happy howl of the sort you do not forget even 15 years on. It was the day an elderly Sunderland fan jumped up and clicked his heels on the way out a la Morecambe and Wise. Of all the hundreds of Sunderland games covered, this remains the one.

Turning point

They would have fallen to eighth but for Miller's header. Instead they won seven of the next eight to go top. On the final afternoon Sunderland won 5-0 at Luton to take the Championship. Liam Miller's goal was a turning-point. He, Keane, Niall Quinn and Drumaville had rescued a sinking ship.

All of which felt freshly relevant on Wednesday and not just because nostalgia rules.

No, Keane and Sunderland were back in the air. They were back on. Fourteen Februarys later, Roy Keane was again considered the answer to Sunderland’s waywardness.

The club, in a division below the Championship, had stuttered. Some not paying attention thought it was only over the past fortnight or so, but the reality is that with nine matches left of last season Sunderland were third in the table with games in hand on the two sides above them. Wearside had control of its destiny.

But in contrast to 2007 Sunderland won only one of those nine games to finish fourth, 10 points off second. Not even close.

They then lost the play-off to Lincoln City. Lee Johnson, the manager, must have been scrutinised by the board. Momentum had been lost but they backed him. They would all go again.

And there have been weeks when that has looked a solid, patient decision - after beating Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 at the end of December, for example, Sunderland were top of League One.

But it was a misleading outcome: teams below had games in hand; Sunderland have won just one of seven since; they kept a clean sheet but have done only once since. Sunderland in fact conceded 17 goals in the other six matches. To put that in League One context, current leaders Rotherham have conceded 18 goals all season. Sunderland's goals-against tally is up to 43.

So when a fortnight ago Johnson was dismissed after a six-nil battering at Bolton, there was an obvious area of the pitch for the board to think about when appointing his successor. The team requires tightening defensively.

Box office

Then Keane’s name appeared and no-one was talking about the specifics of defence. Some began to speak of 2006-07 as if it was more relevant than Bolton 2022; some talked of Keane’s ‘box office’ appeal. Some of these people were in the boardroom.

For more than a week the club was backed into a corner by itself: it was Keane or nothing. Fair enough. Except when Keane declined. The succession plan Sunderland said they had turned out to be a phrase.

As Wednesday night became Thursday morning and news of Keane's non-appointment dominated the agenda, the players were still without a coach who could re-organise them, motivate and get a defensive shape prepared for Saturday's match at AFC Wimbledon.

Finally he arrived – Alex Neil. But momentum, a quality Keane and Miller brought in 2007, has been lost.

Neil starts with a talented squad in League One terms but it will not be easy being not-Roy-Keane. If Sunderland win at Wimbledon all concerned will be able to look forward and the club can try to re-gather itself - easier said than done given a few of the characters about.

If they lose, however, then the past will hang around. It’s not all bad - there’s Liam Miller in it and there are lessons to be recalled. But the past is not today and it is not the future.


The 2022 League of Ireland season starts next Friday and it is possible to feel a different kind of buzz, even from across the Irish Sea.

Part of that is down to the presence of Damien Duff in the League, part of it down to rising standards of the 'product' - hence clubs in Serie A and elsewhere are paying attention - and part of it is due to the simple post-Covid desire to be out in company.

In England they are seeing this, notably at non-League level, where some attendances have been five-figure. Just when it seems football can get no bigger, there is a surge.

If that is repeated in the League of Ireland, then it will bring in cash, profile and enhanced status, all of which will stimulate what is so badly needed: physical infrastructure. From there you get an industry able to stand alone and the beginning of a virtuous circle.

Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley said this week how great it would be if every club can have "a real training facility and stadium they are proud of," in the next decade. That's an aspiration; one hopes it can be realised.