THE LATEST chapter in Sunderland’s survival bid takes place at Stoke City on Saturday, with the Black Cats in dire need of a first away win since December.
Ahead of the game – and to coincide with the launch of his autobiography Rise of the Underdog – the Gazette’s Chris Young speaks to ex-Sunderland and Potters defender Danny Higginbotham.
Higginbotham, now enjoying a successful career as a media pundit, discusses Sunderland’s current plight, reflects on life under Roy Keane, plus his moves to and from Stoke.
STOKE CITY’S mid-table solidity should serve as the perfect lesson to Sunderland’s hierarchy about the benefits of continuity, believes Danny Higginbotham.
Since earning promotion to the Premier League in 2008, Stoke have gradually established themselves in the top flight, with Mark Hughes’ side avoiding any flirtation with the relegation dogfight this season.
After the seven-year reign of Tony Pulis, Hughes is only the second manager Stoke have had during their Premier League tenure.
By contrast, Dick Advocaat is the seventh permanent Sunderland boss during the same seven-year corresponding period.
It’s a damning statistic, and perhaps not surprisingly has prevented Sunderland progressing to their objective of top half sanctuary, rather than continually finding themselves in the dogfight at the bottom of the table.
“It is not sustainable when you keep making those changes,” said Higginbotham.
“When I got relegated with Southampton and Derby, we had three managers in each of those two seasons.
“Yes, sometimes it can work as a shock effect, as we saw with Paolo Di Canio, but it’s not going to work long-term.
“You can’t have a manager keep coming in, not fancying the players he’s got and then bringing in more new players.
“Just look at Stoke. For their first five years in the Premier League, they had the same manager and then they’ve had Mark Hughes since.
“Sunderland have had seven managers during that time, and that’s not good.
“All the teams that have success and continue to stay in the Premier League are those who have a manager there for the long term.
“No-one ever associates Stoke with relegation anymore and that is to the full credit of everyone at the football club.”
Not that Sunderland’s current woes are entirely down to poor management.
Sunderland have spent big in assembling a squad capable of thriving in the Premier League – the likes of Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell all commanding eight-figure transfer fees.
But those players continue to under-perform after their inability to avoid a third successive battle with the drop.
“Yes, of course the players have to take responsibility,” said Higginbotham.
“I got relegated twice and at the end of the season, I did not look back and blame the manager – I thought why have I not done as well as I should have.
“Sunderland have players who are capable, there is no doubt about that.
“Jermain Defoe, Adam Johnson, Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea, Connor Wickham – that is a team that should stay in the Premier League.”
Inevitably, those players have come in for plenty of flak from supporters after the latest debacle against Crystal Palace nine days ago.
The man in the dug-out may have changed, but it was yet another Stadium of Light capitulation from Sunderland, as they conceded four times for the second time in three home games.
Those quick-fire collapses against Palace and Aston Villa told Higginbotham that this is a side boasting minimal levels of confidence.
He added: “Sunderland’s results have been magnified because of the manner of the defeats – if they had been beaten by Palace 1-0, I don’t think it would have been mentioned as much.
“When you are conceding that many goals, it’s all down to confidence and now it’s whether they can scrap a few results out over the last few weeks.
“It’s not about pretty football now, it’s about the character of the team. Do they have the squad to stay up? I think so.
“But when your confidence is very low, it is very difficult to get it back. You have to grind out results first and foremost.”
Danny Higginbotham went from cleaning Roy Keane’s boots as a Manchester United apprentice, to playing under the fiery Irishman at Sunderland.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that in his new book, Rise of the Underdog, Higginbotham’s admiration for Keane as both player and manager leaps off several pages.
Higginbotham’s belief that Keane was the best midfielder of his generation is a source of debate, yet it’s a view shared by many after his contribution to the Man United engine room at its pomp.
But Keane’s stint in management seems to receive far less credit.
It’s easy to paint Keane as the hot-head who didn’t have the man-management skills to deal with players less gifted than him – a narrow-minded view given further fuel by his ill-feted spell at Ipswich.
The excerpts of Higginbotham’s book in the national press have centred on a Keane team talk at Aston Villa when he told Sunderland’s players they were **** and they proved him wrong with a 1-0 win.
Look back though and Keane’s spell in charge of Sunderland was a stunning feat, despite its sticky ending.
He took a club lingering ominously at the bottom of the Championship, dragged it back to the Premier League and then kept it up with a bit to spare.
Higginbotham, signed at the start of that top flight campaign, told the Gazette: “People say there is no correct way to manage, it’s what gets the best out of the players.
“It might be difficult for great players to go into management and get frustrated.
“But he took over the club when they were bottom of the Championship and then finished comfortably in the Premier League. That’s not easy!
“I think sometimes his time at Sunderland is not given the credit for how well he actually did.
“People look at him and think he is an angry manager, but he gets the best out of players. He got the best out of me.
“I think he would be a great manager now given the opportunity, I really do think that.”
Injuries had seen Keane’s playing career climax at Celtic the year before his arrival at the Stadium of Light, yet Sunderland’s squad still got a glimpse of his quality.
Keane would participate in 11-a-side training games on a Thursday and still outshone everyone else involved.
“He was still the best player on the training ground by a distance,” added Higginbotham.
“He could do fantastic things easily that the rest of us found very difficult to do. He still played in central midfield in training and he stuck out like a sore thumb.
“At times you thought ‘can you not play for us?’ That desire and commitment were still unbelievable.
“He was still the best midfielder of that generation. It was ridiculous how good he was.”
The desire to play regular first-team football prompted Danny Higginbotham’s return to Stoke City after a year at Sunderland.
Higginbotham had made 21 appearances for the Black Cats during his maiden campaign at the Stadium of Light after a £2.5million move from the Britannia Stadium.
The left-back played in a 2-1 win at Spurs at the start of the 2008-09 season, but that proved to be his last appearance in red and white, with Sunderland accepting a £2m bid from the newly-promoted Potters for the ex-Manchester United to return.
Then Sunderland boss Roy Keane made it clear to Higginbotham that he had other options in the full-back slots and with the prospect of being limited to a bit-part role, he decided to re-join Tony Pulis’ men.
“I was left out after a game at Spurs and I had no issue with that because the manager picks the team,” he said.
“But I did not want to be hanging around on the bench.
“When the opportunity to go back to Stoke came, I knew I would be playing and that was the most important thing to me.
“I was not about the finance side of it. It was about how many games I could play.
“I enjoyed my time at Sunderland, but I was not going to be playing and in the end it was done in the proper way. There were hand-shakes all-round.”
Higginbotham had submitted a transfer request to leave Stoke and join Sunderland a year earlier, but that was at the Potters’ behest.
The ex-Derby and Southampton defender had not been looking to leave the Britannia, but the opportunity to play in the Premier League – coupled with Stoke’s eagerness to cash-in – saw the move materialise.
“Stoke had bought me the year before for £225,000, because I was in the last year of my contract at Southampton,” added Higginbotham.
“They were never really going to turn down the money Sunderland were offering.
“But I had no issue with that because it was a great opportunity to play for a club the size of Sunderland.
“The big thing for me was to play for Roy Keane too. For him to sign me as a manager was really special.
“I was really proud that he saw something in me.”