This week's 'Roker Relives' takes on a much more modern tone with the upcoming visit to Manchester City, asking readers to cast their minds only as far back as Sunderland's last trip to Eastlands. With Christmas fast approaching and the north-east battered by heavy snowfall, Steve Bruce eighteenth league game in charge of the Black Cats proved to be a neutral’s dream.
Having firmly hit the ground running after taking over the reigns in pre-season, Bruce had seen his side's form dip recently. Without a win in almost a month, the last victory coming at home to Arsenal, the ex-Wigan boss entered the blue half of Manchester knowing a point would be more than acceptable for his side.
As for the hosts, despite being within reach of a European spot prior to kick-off, gaffer Mark Hughes' job was dangling by a thread. The expectations that came with the vast recent expenditure on the playing squad seemed not to have been matched by Hughes, and many observers expected him to be dismissed if three points were not forthcoming against the visitors from Wearside – and even that mightn't be enough to save his skin.
Sunderland lined up with three men who are no longer on their books, Martin Fulop, Andy Reid and Darren Bent, and two men who are unlikely to play for them again, George McCartney and Nyron Nosworthy. Manchester City, meanwhile, had a certain Nedum Onuoha in their starting XI, a man currently on loan at the Black Cats. Also in the host's line-up were Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz and Stephen Ireland, none of whom remain at the club.
The game itself started as it meant to go on. Hughes, seeking a spark to ensure his job survival, dropped Emmanuel Adebayor and Robinho and replaced them with the aforementioned Santa Cruz and Bellamy. He was quickly rewarded. With just four minutes on the clock, the two incoming strikers combined; Bellamy's cross, Santa Cruz's tap-in, one-nil City.
The visitors, having lost three of their last four, feared the worst. Eight minutes later, their deficit was doubled. Once more Santa Cruz and Bellamy were the architects, the Paraguayan play a one-two with his Welsh team-mate. Nyron Nosworthy, not renowned for his delicacy in the tackle, clumsily felled Bellamy, and referee Andre Marriner awarded the home side a penalty. Carlos Tevez stepped up and, getting the better of Fulop in the Sunderland goal, gave Hughes' side a 2-0 lead.
From there, one would reasonably argue, a side with City's wealth of quality should have been able to ensure a comfortable victory. Alas, it wasn't to be, and the defensive frailties that had helped put Hughes' job on the line once more reared their ugly head.
First, Andy Reid, now plying his trade at Blackpool, whipped a delicious left-footed cross into the opposing area. John Mensah found himself completely unmarked, and nodded home past ex-Sunderland loanee Shay Given. Moments later, the scores were level. The home side made a mess of clearing a corner, and youngster Jordan Henderson was on hand to thrash the ball into the net past a helpless Given.
Micah Richards was to exit the stage soon after having picked up a knock, and his replacement Pablo Zabaleta had an influential role in the game's next goal. He cleverly chipped the ball into space for the industrious Shaun Wright-Phillips to run onto, from where the son of the legendary Arsenal striker put in a low fizzing cross. The away defence failed to cut the ball out and it found its way to the ever-lively Bellamy, who made no mistake, curling the ball past Fulop into the corner.
Conceding not long before half-time, especially after having gotten themselves back into the game after a dreadful start, could have disheartened the visiting red and whites. Yet, Bruce's arrival on Wearside brought a steelier component to the squad, and they came out in the second half determined to equalise once more.
And that they did, in quite superb fashion too. Henderson, playing in the right-wing position many Sunderland fans are currently wishing he'd revert to, found the time and space to send a ball into the area. Kenwyne Jones, now departed for Stoke but then a first-half substitute for Steed Malbranque, outleapt Vincent Kompany convincingly, and buried an equalising header into the net in front of the travelling hordes of away fans.
Those who'd made the trip down from the north-east would have been delighted if the drama had ended there, but this Christmas cracker had a few more twists and turns before it could be finally laid to rest.
In what proved to be the game's winner, England midfielder Gareth Barry toe-poked a cross into the direction of Santa Cruz, who once again made no mistake in converting from close range.
Following their 0-3 victory a few days prior to Tottenham, and now having conceded three again in this match, City and Hughes were in no way certain that Santa Cruz's second would prove to be enough. As it was, they were helped by referee Mariner. With the game approaching the latter stages, Sunderland centre-back Michael Turner leapt for an aerial challenge with Barry. In the process, Turner's elbow caught the opposing midfielder, who fell to the floor in a heap. Despite the elbow clearly being inadvertent, Turner having kept his eye on the ball at all times, Marriner saw fit to award the man signed in August from Hull a straight red card, and Sunderland's hopes of securing a point were finally lost.
Tragically, this victory wasn't enough to save Mark Hughes' job. A convincing win may well have seen his superiors retain his services, but the calamitous defending that had been on show for much of the season until then proved to be his downfall. Roberto Mancini would soon enter the fray as his replacement, guiding the Blues to fifth place and a Europa League spot.
As for Sunderland, their winless run would continue until March. Fears of relegation would soon begin to creep into their psyche once more, but a 4-0 demolition of Bolton Wanderers at the start of spring ended any chance of that. Bruce's first season in charge would result in a finishing position of thirteenth. Just as Mancini and City looked to push on from that platform of fifth, Bruce and Sunderland also viewed last season as a foundation from which they could move towards the next level. An unexpected victory on Sunday for the visitors could well see that level achieved.