Five of the Best: Sunderland Festive Fixtures

Stu Forster

With this season's festive calender underway, we thought we'd take a look at some of the best games from Sunderland's Christmas past.

Bradford 1-4 Sunderland (Boxing Day 2000)

The 2000/01 festive period proved to be one of surprising cheer for Sunderland fans as they went unbeaten over four games. The first match came two days before Christmas, as the Black Cats weathered a Manchester City onslaught to pick up a 1-0 victory (sound familiar?). We followed this up with a memorable draw at Highbury, coming back from two goals down to pinch a point from a strong Arsenal side.

The other two games saw 4-1 victories; one on New Year's Day against that season's surprise package Ipswich, and the other 6 days earlier at Valley Parade, with Sunderland taking a relegation threatened Bradford apart.

Quinn gave Sunderland the lead on the stroke of half-time, before a Kevin Phillips show in the second half. The England man hit a hat-trick, and could have had a forth had his late penalty not been saved by Gary Walsh. A boisterous away crowd celebrated as their side went third in the table, with an Elvis impersonator running onto the pitch after Phillips' third to worship at the Sunderland heroes' feet.

Sunderland 5-4 Arsenal (28th December 1935)

Sunderland and Arsenal were two of the great sides of the mid-1930's with the Gunners, having been built into an all-conquering side by Herbert Chapman (deceased by the time this game came around), winning three consecutive titles. The previous season had seen the North London side pip Sunderland to the title by just four points, but the the start of the 1935/36 season has seen something of the shift, with the Rokermen gaining a solid lead at the top of the table by Christmas.

However it was this all out classic at Roker Park after Christmas that cemented Sunderland's team of young local lads, put together by manager John Cochrane, as the best of that year. The home side battled the wet and windy elements, and raced into a 4-1 half time lead. Bert Davis gave Sunderland the lead, before setting up Patsy Gallacher for the second. Legendary Arsenal forward Cliff Basten halved the deficit from the penalty spot, but Raich Carter, one of Wearside's greatest ever talents and Sunderland captain, netted twice before half time.

Arsenal fought back after the interval after an injury to Gallacher made the home side lose their potency somewhat, with the inside forward having to switch with winger Jimmy Connor and make up the numbers on the wing. Another famous Arsenal forward Ted Drake got the visitors second just after the break, before Bowden headed in to make it 4-3 and give his side a great chance to snatch a point.

However Sunderland found some fight, and it proved to be Jimmy Connor, the makeshift inside left, who scored a wonderful goal. He ran from the half way line, beating two men, before playing a one-two with Carter and striking from distance into the back of the net. Arsenal pulled one back through Bowden again to give them a fighting chance, but Cochrane's men held on for an important victory. Sunderland went on to win their sixth league title, the last time the championship trophy ended up on Wearside.

Manchester United 3-5 Sunderland (Boxing Day, 1950)

Before the Busby Babes thrilled the country, Sunderland had a very good record against Manchester United and their Scottish manager. While this United side was not quite as notable as the one that came afterwards, they were still a dangerous one, winning the league title in 1952, having finished runner-up four times previously, so it was some achievement that Sunderland managed five consecutive wins at Old Trafford.

The most famous of these came when 'The Bank of England Club', as the Wearsiders were dubbed, travelled to Manchester on Boxing Day in 1950. Both sides were having disappointing seasons at the time, with the home side stuck in mid-table, while Sunderland, despite their huge transfer outlay, were flirting with relegation. Luckily, they were starting to find some form, having beaten their opponents a day earlier at Roker Park. They went to Old Trafford for the return fixture and again dispatched United with a terrific performance.

Aston netted for the home side after just two minutes, but Northern Irishman Billy Bigham levelled just a minute later, and a pulsating match was already well underway. Ivor Broadis, signed from Carlilse for a big fee, produced a Man of the Match display, controlling the game, and scoring a first half hat-trick. Bogan hit one back for United, but Sunderland went into the break 4-2 to the good. Striker Dickie Davis made it 5-2 after the break, and though Bogan scored again towards the end, Sunderland earned a superb win.

However, the team's upturn in form didn't last.  Sunderland continued to struggle, before eventually pulling away from relegation at the end of the season. Busby's United side however went on a startling run after this defeat, keeping form until the end of the season, though it was only enough to lead them to another runners-up spot, finishing four points behind Champions Tottenham.

Manchester United 2-1 Sunderland (New Year's Day, 2003)

Sunderland's feckless 02/03 team travelled to Old Trafford on the first day of 2003 with spirits low. Stuck in the bottom third of the table for most of the season, going into the match in the bottom three, and under the stewardship of the Howard Wilkinson/Steve Cotterill dream team, the players faced a daunting trip to a ground the club hadn't won at since 1968, against a side on their way to yet another Championship.

If Sunderland were to get anything from the game they would need a great deal of luck, and they certainly got it when they took the lead after just four minutes. Fabian Barthez's weak punch fell to Gavin McCann who tried a lob with the French keeper of his line. It was a weak effort, but one that rebounded off Roy Keane, and record signing Juan Sebastian Veron's attempts at dealing with it saw him flick the ball into his own goal with his head.

The visitors had a surprise lead, but Manchester United, seeing as they are Manchester United, responded, and peppered the Sunderland goal for the remainder of the game, and yet couldn't find the back of the net. The reason for that was Jurgen Macho.

Macho had previously produced a heroic performance to gain his side a point at Anfield two month prior, but otherwise had a reputation for making unforced errors. On that day he reproduced his form from that Liverpool game, keeping Manchester United out with a string of fine saves. The Austrian kept Solskjear out twice with good reactive saves and made terrific saves from spectacular Beckham and Veron efforts, but the stop of the match came when he scrambled across his goal to somehow keep out Rio Ferdinand's effort.

With ten minutes remaining it looked as if Sunderland might somehow come of out the bombardment with a famous, and incredibly surprising, victory. However, as it often did under Alex Ferguson, United's pressure told. A long ball forward from Mikael Silvestre caught our back four out, allowing Beckham to waltz in behind and coolly clip the ball past Macho.

Sunderland didn't even escape with a point, as Scholes nodded a winner in the first minute of stoppage time. The players slumped to the ground at the final whistle. They had missed a chance of a stunning victory at Old Trafford, and they wouldn't find a win again for the rest of the season as they slumped to relegation with a record low Premier League points total.

Sunderland 1-0 Man City (New Year's Day, 2012)

Martin O'Neill was still very much in the honeymoon period when eventual champion Man City travelled to the Stadium of Light, having picked up two wins and a draw from his opening four games, steering the club away from relegation trouble. Things didn't really get good for the Ulsterman until this game though, a result which left Sunderland fans certain of their new manager's abilities.

The home side's chances were dealt a severe blow when Wes Brown pulled up injured after just twenty minutes (it would prove to be his last start until his recent return), and with an already injury hit squad, Matt Kilgallon was force into a surprise appearance. As it is, the former Sheffield United man was superb, part of a back four that kept their opponents from creating too many clear cut chances, despite them dominating possession. When they did break through, they found Simon Mignolet, only just returning from injury, in great form, and it was with this game that the Belgian finally nailed down his claim to the number one jersey.

Despite City's dominance, the game is remembered for one moment. Having weathered a stream of attacks (although it should be noted the best chance of the game had fallen to Stephan Sessegnon in the second half), Sunderland broke at the death.

Sergio Ageuro's shot was blocked, and the ball fell to Larsson on the edge of his own area with space to run into. The Swede took the ball forward to the centre circle and found McClean on the left before collapsing in the middle of the pitch due to the effort he'd put in. McClean played it to Ji, who found Sessegnon, then continued his run into the box. Sessegnon put the Korean through on goal, and he rounded Joe Hart and put the ball into the back of the net with the last act of the match.

It was a famous victory, though one that proved to be something of a false dawn. Ji never came close to hitting those heights again, and looks certain for a move to Germany in January. As for O'Neill, his great run continued till Match, but struggled from that point, and was sacked the following season with the threat of relegation a real possibility. Sunderland replaced him with Di Canio and we all lived happily ever after.

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