The 2002-03 season is hardly one which conjures up many happy memories in the minds of Sunderland fans. Howard Wilkinson, three own goals in one match and a total of a paltry nineteen points are just a small selection of horror stories from a nightmare campaign that ended with fifteen straight league losses.
Indeed the Black Cats were unable to take maximum points in any of the final twenty games of their second spell in the Premier League; their last league success that season came when Gerard Houllier's Liverpool visited Wearside ten days before Christmas.
Going into the Yuletide fixture, Sunderland's illustrious counterparts were in relatively dire straits themselves. Having been frustrated at Anfield a month earlier by the red and whites, when Austrian goalkeeper Jurgen Macho somehow ensured Sunderland would return home on the back of a 0-0 draw, Liverpool's 1-2 defeat at the Stadium of Light was their fourth league loss in a row.
For Sunderland the extent of what would soon follow was not yet entirely evident, but the alarm bells were ringing. Peter Reid departed in October 2002, after seven and a half years at the helm, with his side perched precariously in seventeenth position. The deflating appointment of Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill in his stead saw the Black Cats leap head first into the relegation zone; a 0-3 home defeat to Manchester City six days prior to the Merseysiders' visit meant they found themselves just one place from the foot of the table.
Just one of the men in the starting XI that day remains at Sunderland over eight years on, and the likelihood of George McCartney donning the red and white shirt again is slim at best. The aforementioned Macho retained his place in goal, finding himself behind a back four consisting of McCartney, Liverpool-born Stephen Wright, ex-Liverpool centre back Phil Babb, and Joachim Bjorklund. In front of them local lad and usual left-back Michael Gray was deployed in midfield alongside Kevin Kilbane, Paul Thirlwell and eventual man of the match Gavin McCann. Sunderland cult hero Kevin Phillips partnered Sunderland cult flop Tore Andre Flo up front.
In the forms of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, Houllier's side contained two men who still ply their trade in front of the famous Kop. Carragher was partnered by Igor Biscan, Djimi Traore and the formidable Stephane Henchoz in a back line that guarded goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, now at Wigan. The Reds' front six was a relatively strong one. With Gerrard, Dietmar Hamann and Vladimir Smicer in the middle, they fielded three men who would receive Champions League winners medals less than three years later. Current Fulham captain Danny Murphy completed that midfield quartet, whilst Michael Owen and Milan Baros lined up to test the Sunderland defence.
As far as classic matches go, this wasn't one. Both sides looked set to continue their wretched runs of form, and a largely uneventful first thirty minutes did little to enthral those watching at home on SKY television. Kevin Phillips seemed the only bright spark of the game in the opening stages, first setting up a Kevin Kilbane effort that went wide of Chris Kirkland's post, before himself missing the target after linking up with Flo.
And then came a moment of individual brilliance, something which was sorely lacking throughout the rest of Sunderland's season. Gavin McCann, returning from suspension, clattered into a tackle with the opposing Gerrard, winning the ball perfectly from the England international. Flo picked up the loose ball and, seeing McCann had continued his forage forward, slipped the ball into the path of his team-mate. With a glance goalward, the central midfielder executed the most delicate of chips, lifting the ball over Kirkland into the net. In doing so, he ended a run of over 500 minutes without a goal for his side, and Wilkinson's men entered half-time a goal ahead.
But that goal had rallied Liverpool into action. On the back of three straight defeats, they realised the importance of picking up a result here, and went close on numerous occasions. Macho was again the hero of the hour. He denied the Czech Milan Baros twice in short succession, before then tipping a Murphy free-kick over the bar. Murphy managed to beat the Austrian soon after, but his effort missed the target by inches.
Yet for all their pressure, Liverpool were not imperious at the back. As the match hit the hour mark, the home side made a rare visit to the opposition penalty area and found themselves rewarded with a spot kick. Referee Mark Halsey adjudged Carragher to have handled the ball when leaping to clear it; TV replays suggested the defender's protestations that the ball hit him in the face were in fact true. As it was, any injustice mattered not. McCann, clearly confident from his earlier finish, stepped forward to put his side two up. This time, though, Kirkland was victorious, palming the penalty away and keeping Liverpool in the game.
Eight minutes later, they were level. Carragher atoned for his part in the penalty incident, sliding the ball towards striker Baros who calmly put the ball past Macho and into the net. The home crowd, already severely depleted in number by the events of recent months, feared the worst. Wilkinson and Cotterill did little on the touchline to inspire confidence, and a tenth defeat in eighteen league games looked inevitable.
But today was to be their early, and only, Christmas present. Houllier's side continued to look more threatening, but could not find a second goal. They were made to pay for their profligacy. Five minutes from time Michael Proctor, born in Sunderland and brought on just moments earlier, missed his kick, only to be given a second bite of the cherry. His contact this time was scarcely more convincing, but was enough for the ball to trickle past Kirkland and across the goal-line. Rapture from Sunderland was met with incredulity from the visitors, and Wilkinson secured just his second, and final, league victory since taking the reigns. More emphatically, it was Sunderland's first home league win against Liverpool in fourty-four years.
As it was, this match did little other than to prolong the inevitable for the Black Cats. Though it briefly propelled them out of the relegation places, defeat eleven days later to Leeds saw them fall back in, this time never to return. Staggeringly they added just two more points to their tally all season, and Wilkinson departed with Cotterill in tow at the start of March. In the midst of this, hero Proctor turned tragic villain, scoring two of the three own goals that graced a 1-3 home defeat to Charlton. Mick McCarthy was appointed but could do nothing to arrest the slide, and, after four years in the Premier League, Sunderland returned to the second tier.
Liverpool eventually got out of their rut, finishing fifth. But, for only the fourth time in that horrendous, embarrassing season, this was Sunderland's day. Proctor's late winner was a final moment of joy and, in spite of breaking the record for lowest points in the top division, ensured that the Wearsiders went unbeaten that year against the 18-time league winners.
Just over eight years on from that disastrous term, it is hard to believe that Sunderland are now pushing for a top six berth. Considering that they would fail to surpass their own dismal points record in 2006, it is all the more remarkable that victory this coming Sunday could see them finish the season above the men from the red side of the Mersey.