Keane to keep Sunderland on track?

Look at the stats and there seems little to choose between Sunderland's last two promotion campaigns. In 2005 they went up as champions with 94 points; last season they went up as champions with 88.

Given how much greater their budget was last season, it might even seem that Mick McCarthy's achievement in getting them up two years ago was greater than Roy Keane's earlier this year. Yet the mood could hardly be more different.

In 2006, Sunderland were pre-season favourites for relegation and, sure enough, they did fall back into the second flight, posting a record low of 15 points along the way. This time their fans are bullishly speaking of a top-half finish, perhaps even European qualification.

The difference can be put down to one man, their manager Roy Keane. The question is whether even the former Manchester United captain has the personality to carry on the renaissance he inspired in the second half of last season.

The surge that saw Sunderland lose just one league game in 2007 to overhaul Birmingham City and take the Championship title at least killed off the gremlins that Niall Quinn blamed for a disastrous run of four straight defeats at the start of the season.

The culture of negativity that had set in after three promotions in nine years had all been swiftly followed by relegation has gone. Equally, there are few who doubt that Keane, brooding meaningfully on the touchline, has the makings of a very fine manager.

His legendary temper has been kept in check, and he has shown a greater tactical acuity than many thought probable. His drive and attention to detail led Sunderland to a series of rallies and late goals last season, so that their comebacks, their ability to steal goals just when they were needed, came to resemble United in their treble-winning year of 1999, when Keane spurred them on from midfield.

"Based on my experiences playing the game under managers like Sir Alex (Ferguson) and Cloughie (Brian Clough), football is a simple game," Keane explained in a recent interview in FourFourTwo magazine. "It's about passing and moving, but a lot of people try to overcomplicate it."

Yet the point remains that the gulf between Premiership and Championship is vast, and getting wider. Half of the 30 teams promoted in the past decade have been relegated immediately, and even those who have achieved a measure of success in their first season up - Wigan Athletic, Fulham and Sunderland themselves in 2000 and 2001 - have struggled to maintain that form.

Keane's frantic transfer activity this summer is indicative of how far short of the necessary quality he felt his promotion squad to be. At least, though, unlike McCarthy, he has had significant money to spend. Six players have arrived for fees totalling between £25 and 30 million, while Keane has been thwarted in his efforts to bring in a left-back, with Wigan's Leighton Baines preferring to join Everton.

Negotiations continue for a new striker. The 35-year-old Andy Cole, a veteran of United's treble-winning side who was released by Portsmouth last season, could join on a free transfer, while Keane has also held talks with Tottenham Hotspur's unsettled Egypt striker Mido.

"Are we equipped for next season?" Keane asked after last week's 1-1 friendly draw against Juventus. "Only time will tell. We have a good squad of players and the fans are right behind us. It's full steam ahead now."

It is up front where Sunderland look short. Their success in 1999/2000, when they finished seventh, was based around the strike duo of Quinn and Kevin Phillips, who won the European Golden Boot by scoring 30 of the 44 goals the duo scored that season. This time round they have nothing like that.

David Connolly managed 14 last season, but is inconsistent at top level, while £5 million signing Michael Chopra, who banged in 22 goals for an average Cardiff City last season, has only one Premiership goal to his credit - unhelpfully against Sunderland for their arch-rivals Newcastle.

"Last season was a challenge," Keane said, "but this season is going to be an even bigger one." The expectation of fans is tinged by fear, but at least this time there is expectation."