SAFC 10 YEARS AGO: Stern John ready for league leaders

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Here’s what the Echo was reporting on Sunderland 10 years ago.

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Keane pleased with squad strength

ROY KEANE believes his squad is still short in some areas, but has again praised his Sunderland players who have put themselves right in the hunt for automatic promotion,

The Irishman has made 13 signings – ten permanent and three loans – since being installed in the Stadium of Light hotseat at the end of August, when the Black Cats were in the relegation zone.

The Wearsiders have since climbed into the play-off places and have the top two in their sights ahead of Saturday’s home game with leaders Derby – who suffered a shock 2-0 defeat at home to Stoke last night.

But Keane would still like more resources.

He said: “We’re short of a couple of full-backs and maybe a right-sided midfielder. But the lads who have been playing have given us a chance of promotion and we’re delighted about that.

“The squad’s working very well for us at the moment. Generally, it is looking very healthy.

“I remember mentioning around Christmas time that were short of bodies.

“I’d let a lot of players go our on loan, which is something I won’t be doing again in a hurry. But the situation is looking a lot healthier now.

“Last weekend I didn’t include Stan Varga, Daryl Murphy or Kenny Cunningham in the squad for the game against Southend.

“And that shows you the competition we have for places right now in pretty much every position.

“It’s very pleasing for me as a manager to know that I have players that I can call on in different situations.

“For example, Dean Whitehead picked up a suspension when he got his fifth yellow card of the season against Southend.

“He’ll be a big loss to us for the Derby County game but we have players who can fill those central midfield roles now – there’s Dwight Yorke who can come alongside Liam Miller and we have Grant Leadbitter to call upon.

“And that’s without taking into consideration Graham Kavanagh who’s still out injured.”

The strength in depth extends towards the front men where Stern John has come in to swell the ranks.

The striker bagged two goals against Southend United last weekend to get himself off the mark and Keane believes he could be a key player during the promotion run-in.

He said: “I’ve been very pleased with Stern and I think he has surprised a few people. I think people perhaps didn’t appreciate what good a footballer he is with the ball at his feet.

“He is a skilful player for a big man but also, of course, there is that physical strength to his game and he has certainly added something to the squad. He gives us real presence up front and he is a very powerful header of the ball and it is great for us to have him in the side.

“I have to say I’m happy with the squad that we have to use between now and the end of the season and I’m feeling quite comfortable at the moment that if players do get injured, we have someone who can slot quickly into their place.

“We’ve got big games coming, including the Derby and West Brom games but, thankfully, the strength of my squad is not one of my concerns at the moment.”

STERN’S IN THE MOOD:

NEW boy Stern John is determined to hand Championship leaders Derby County a third defeat in a week when they visit Sunderland on Saturday.

The Wearsiders are unbeaten in the league in 2007, rising to fifth place in the table with eyes on an automatic promotion spot.

Derby, beaten by Stoke last night to follow their FA Cup exit at Plymouth, are only six points better off then Sunderland ahead of the eagerly-awaited Stadium of Light showdown – albeit with a game in hand.

And John, who had a loan stint at Derby in 2005, believes Sunderland will be at their best for the big clash – and he believes the Black Cats cannot afford to lose.

The Red and Whites are looking the part as the Championship race reaches its peak, with six wins and two draws in the eight games since they lost to Preston on December 30.

“We have gelled together really quickly,” said John, snapped up from Coventry for £250,000 late last month. “A lot of players have come to Sunderland in the last few months, but we are already playing as a team and that’s important.

“We are going to need that unity in the last games of the season. It would have been worse if we didn’t have the games to put things right, but there is still an awful lot of this season to go.

“As long as we keep on believing in ourselves, I am sure we will be all right.”

Sunderland could have been within four points of Derby had they held on to their lead at Birmingham on Tuesday, but the momentum is with Roy Keane’s side, despite the concession of a last-minute goal to Blues striker DJ Campbell.

“We wanted all three points, of course we did,” said John. “Sometimes you have to take a point against a team that is higher than you in the league.

“The main thing is that we got something. The game against Derby is obviously a big one now. If we’re going to get promoted, we really cannot afford to lose any more games.

“We were all over Birmingham for large parts of the game but we didn’t put the game to bed. That’s something we’re going to have to learn from in the games that lie ahead.

“There’s a lot of positives to take out of the match, and we shouldn’t forget that we were right on top for large periods of it.

“Conceding the late goal was an obvious disappointment, but we have to keep rolling with the punches and continue to believe in ourselves.”