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The second season syndrome

Last season, if a player was Irish or had ever featured for Manchester United the chances are that they would end up playing for Roy Keane's Sunderland. It proved a successful approach for the Black Cats, who so often in the past suffered some kind of unwanted record as they plummeted back to the Championship, managed to retain their Premier League status.

This season Keane may have targeted players from a different club but the approach remains the same. Tottenham Hotspur are the beneficiaries of Sunderland's transfer cash this time as a trio of players have agreed to swap White Hart Lane for the Stadium of Light.

Pascal Chimbonda, Steed Malbranque and Teemu Tainio have all headed north and will join fellow new recruit El-Hadji Diouf, from Bolton, as Sunderland look to establish themselves in the Premier League.

They all look astute buys and despite criticism that Sunderland are simply scooping up reserve team players Keane's acquisitions are all certainly good enough to move the club onto the next level, plus they all have a point to prove.

Chimbonda has already experienced the process of establishing a club in the Premier League with Wigan Athletic. So successful was the attacking full-back during his time at the JJB Stadium that he secured a £6million move to Martin Jol's Tottenham and broke into the French national team.

His attacking instincts should help the Black Cat's improve last season's modest tally of 36 goals, the third worst in the Premier League, and this is certainly an area Keane has targeted for improvement with the captures of Malbranque and Tainio.

Kieron Richardson was supposed to provide the ammunition last year but the former Manchester United winger, who famously helped West Bromwich Albion avoid relegation during the 2004/05 season, was injured for much of the season. The arrival of two creative midfielders from Tottenham will provide the Black Cats with more than adequate cover; in fact Richardson may struggle to win back his place.

Malbranque was something of a legend during his time at Fulham, as part of the Jean Tigana revolution, before falling from grace with the Craven Cottage faithful following his lucrative move to Tottenham. He was a key creative spark for Spurs under Jol and rather surprisingly was one of the top five tacklers in the Premier League last year. He is certainly a Keane type of player.

Finland international Tainio was a regular in the first 11 as Spurs came within a whisker of qualifying for the Champions League and was one of ten players who went down with food poisoning on the eve of the final game of the 2005/6 season as Tottenham missed out. Since then he has been played out of position at White Hart Lane and is eager to prove himself in midfield for the Black Cats.

But with talismanic striker Kenwyn Jones out injured for two months Diouf may well emerge as the key player for Sunderland during the start of their second season in the top-flight. Although Jones only scored eight goals for the Black Cats last term he ended the campaign as the club's top scorer, one goal ahead of the disappointing former Newcastle United striker Michael Chopra.

Diouf is not a prolific striker himself, in fact when the Senegal international was named in FIFA's team of the tournament following the 2002 World Cup he had not netted a single goal, but with six goals from the wing for a poor Bolton side last year there is certainly potential for the former Liverpool striker in a more advanced position.

The two-time African Player of the Year is the type of forward that opposition fans love to hate and the type of fiery player than Keane requires to add spark to his industrious team.

The Irish manager is still in the early days of his managerial career and has only tasted success thus far. He took Sunderland from the bottom of the Championship to promotion in his debut year and kept the club in the Premier League the year after.

His challenge now is to avoid the dreaded 'second season syndrome' in the Premier League that has done for so many promoted clubs, most recently Reading.

But with the raft of new signings the former Manchester United player has made in the transfer window Keane has added freshness to the squad, and no small measure of quality, that should be able to stave off relegation.

There are certainly worse teams than Sunderland in the top-flight and if Keane can get the maximum potential out of his ever-changing squad the Black Cats will comfortably survive this season.

  • Any comments? Email Dominic Raynor


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