SUNDERLAND 10 YEARS AGO: Connolly seals points, Leadbitter delight

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

SATURDAY, JANUARY 13 2007

POINT OFF PLAY-OFFS:

Connolly stokes up promotion bid

DAVID Connolly’s 12th-minute goal gave Sunderland all three points in a thrilling clash this afternoon.

 The match was made something of a lottery by the near galeforce winds which swirled around the Stadium of Light and made the outcome of every pass and shot uncertain.

 Roy Keane gave home debuts to all his new signings and Anthony Stokes, Carlos Edwards and Jonny Evans all played their part in a victory which pushes Sunderland to ninth place – just a point outside the play-off spots.

 The vital goal came when Stokes seized onto a ball down the right-hand channel and put in a cross which eluded two Ipswich players before arriving at the feet of Connolly, inside the six-yard box, who passed the ball into the net.

 Connolly had another chance saved in the first-half, as did Ross Wallace in a game in which openings were few and far between.

 The Wearsiders spent most of the second half on the back foot as Ipswich pushed harder and harder for an equaliser.

 Richard Naylor was narrowly off target with a header from just a couple of yards out as Ipswich pressed.

 But the closest they came was when substitute Danny Haynes rifled in a shot in the 63rd minute which Darren Ward could only take the speed off and as Blues striker Alan Lee looked to stab the ball home a yard out, Evans brilliantly and bravely cleared off the line as he was chopped down.

DEAL DELIGHT FOR LEADBITTER:

GRANT LEADBITTER signed a contract extension which will keep him at Sunderland until 2009 – and then immediately set his sights on earning another.

 The young England player turned 21 last week and admits he could not have had a better present than the extended deal which ties him to his hometown club for another 12 months.

 Leadbitter signed a two-year contract last July after his previous deal expired amid speculation that he could be on his way out of the Stadium of Light.

 But the home-grown midfielder was happy to commit himself to another two-year deal once acceptable terms were agreed and he is happier still to extend it by another year this week.

 He said: “This time the negotiations didn’t take long at all. I was happy to sign another deal because I think Sunderland, as a club, is buzzing again and I want to be part of it.

 “Roy Keane has been great for me and great for the club since he came here and I think my game has benefitted as a result.

 “I’m not fooling myself that I‘ve somehow made it though just because I’ve been offered and accepted a new contract because I know that you cannot afford to take anything for granted in football.

 “I’m really pleased to have got this new deal, but as of today I’m working for my next contract and I want to continue to be part of Sunderland Football Club as long as I can.”

 By the time the new contract expires, Leadbitter could be renegotiating another one as a Premiership player and there’s no doubt in the midfielder’s mind that that will be the case.

 He said: “It’s not a case of if we get back in the Premiership as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a matter of when.

 “And I still think we’ve got a great chance this year, so long as we all get our heads down and give everything we’ve got for the cause.

 “The manager’s brought three good players in in the January transfer window and the great thing is that they all seemed to have settled in straight away.

 “The competition for places is now fantastic pretty much all over the team and that means that we’ve all got to be on our toes if we want to keep our places.

 “Hopefully we’ll press on from here and get a few more points because I think after the cup defeat last week, I think we all want to make an impact in the league now.”

 Boss Keane said: “Grant has done really well since I arrived and it’s great for the fans to see a local lad come through.

 “His attitude has been brilliant and he’s the type of player I want at this football club.”

MONDAY, JANUARY 15 2007

WE CAN MAKE IT BIG!:

Connolly partnership can help us up, says Stokes

ANTHONY STOKES reckons his striking partnership with David Connolly can fire Sunderland back to the big time.

 The Republic of Ireland duo combined as Roy Keane’s new double act made an instant impact against Ipswich on Saturday, Stokes setting up Connolly for the only goal of the game as the Black Cats moved to within a point of the play-offs.

 Stokes accepts that this £2million price tag won’t guarantee him a place in the team, but is looking forward for more opportunities to work with the experienced Connolly.

 The 18-year-old signing from Arsenal said: “It was nice to start off at my new club with a win and I was as pleased to set up the goal as I would have been to score myself.

 “Dave Connolly showed his experience with the position he got in for the goal. He pulled away at the back post and the defenders didn’t track him. Obviously, there are four strikers here and there will be different partnerships, but Dave is a great striker to work with.

 “He works really hard and takes up great positions. Hopefully if there are plenty more goals to come between us we can help Sunderland back up to the Premiership,”

 In a gusting wind, Saturday’s match was not for the purists on an afternoon when the result was always going to be more important than the style of the performance.

 Stokes said: “It was hard to play football in those conditions. We got the ball down and passed it when we could, but the wind was unpredictable and it wasn’t pretty to play in, or watch I imagine.

 “Scoring early settled us down and it was enough for a big win.”

 Stokes signed a three-and-a-half year deal on Wearside last week and had little time to get to know his new teammates before winning his first appearance.

 “I only trained with the lads a couple of times and I only found out quite late that I was playing,” said the Dubliner. “The teamsheet went up about 90 minutes before kick-off and that was the first time I knew I was starting. I’m sure it will be the same next weekend against Sheffield Wednesday.”

JONNY: SO TOUGH IN THIS LEAGUE:

It’s harder than internationals, says loan star

THE CHAMPIONSHIP will be a tougher challenge than international football, reckons Sunderland’s on-loan Manchester United defender, Jonny Evans.

 The 20-year-old played three times for Northern Ireland before winning a senior league debut in England with Sunderland on Saturday, proving a rock at the back as the Wearsiders inched closer to the promotion picture with a 1-0 home win over Ipswich.

 The lifelong United fan hopes his spell at the Stadium of Light will be a stepping-stone towards a career at Old Trafford, but does not under-estimate the task at hand with the Black Cats.

 Evans said: “This is the hardest level of football I have played at.

 “It’s hard physically, the pace is quick and I’m getting experience against good players.

 “I’ve had a few international games under my belt and I was quite surprised how well I did in those games after only playing reserve football at United.

 “Those games have given me a lot of confidence coming here and the players around me now like to play good football.

 “I’m happy with the decision I made to come here and excited by this challenge.”

 Evans made his Sunderland debut in their 1-0 FA Cup third-round loss at Preston the weekend before last.

 He is on loan from Old Trafford until the end of the season and is not looking any further than that, although he admits that he is enjoying himself at Sunderland.

 “I’m loving it here,” said Evans. “I’m delighted Sir Alex Ferguson has given me the chance to come and play in this league.

 “I know it’s only a six-month period, but we have seen what has happened with Ben Foster. He was part of the squad that got Watford promoted and he has stayed there. It has furthered his development playing in the Premiership.

 “I don’t know whether that would be the case with Sunderland, if we got promoted whether Sir Alex would let me stay. But, given the way it’s going, I am enjoying it and we will see what happens.”

 United boss Ferguson expects a bright Red Devils future for the Belfast-born centre-back and Sunderland manager Roy Keane confessed he felt there was “no chance” of the Black Cats eventually signing the defender permanently.

 The Manchester giants have been tracking Evans since he was only 10, and he would love to follow in the footsteps of fellow Belfast natives George Best and Norman Whiteside as a Stretford End idol.

 Evans said: “As long as Man United want me, I want to stay with them.

 “I’ve been a United fan all my life and I moved over to England when I was 15 and signed a scholarship with them.

 “Roy Keane was my favourite player. He brought so much to the game – I grew up watching Man United on television and I remember his goal against Juventus in the Champions League semi-final.

 “He got booked in the game and knew he would miss the final, but kept going and made sure the team go there.

 “When he got in touch with me personally, it was hard to turn him down.

 “I was in Belgium at the time (on loan at Royal Antwerp). He spoke to my parents – I think my dad was more exited than I was!”

  Evans performances so far have shown maturity beyond his age and experience, and the same could be said about the way he talks about his prospects at Old Trafford.

 He added: “There a lot of good centre-backs at United and if I can’t be better than those players then there is no point trying to be at the club. As a fan, I want the best for United. If I end up not being good enough, I think I’ll be able to accept that.

 “But I have confidence in my ability and that it will happen for me.”