With the 'end of season' theme that is about to rip through The Roker Report like a runaway freight train on the horizon, I thought it best if Roker Relives kicked us off with a nice late-season trip to Upton Park. Having secured promotion back to the Premier League at the second attempt a week previously in a 2-1 victory over Leicester City, Mick McCarthy took his merry band of workmanlike red and whites to London, for a memorable final away game of that Championship winning season.
In hindsight, the majority of the team that secured the league title on a fantastic Friday evening, in front of the SKY TV cameras no less, will forever be remembered as the hapless 'fifteen-pointers'. Though this is inescapable, it is perhaps a tad harsh on what proved to be a very good second tier side.
Having picked up momentum in abundance, McCarthy's men were well and truly on their way. Even an injury to their two first-choice goalkeepers, Thomas Myhre and Mart Poom, did little to knock them off course; in came young Ben Alnwick, hitting the ground running with a series of superb performances.
The trip to The Hammers was never set to be an easy one though, with Alan Pardew's side desperately trying to seal a second trip to the play-offs in as many seasons.
And so the game proved tricky for the promoted visitors. The home side started buoyantly, pressing their visitors back on regular occasions, determined to seize an early initiative.
They almost succeeded too. A foul outside the Sunderland area presented The Hammers with a free kick within range, which Marlon Harewood promptly lashed towards goal with startling venom. Fortunately for the Black Cats, young Alnwick in goal was equal to the task, somehow managing, with outstretched palms, to turn the ball over the bar for a corner.
West Ham continued their relentless pressure, but McCarthy's men seemed to have gotten the measure of their opponents, repelling attacks without too much hassle. However, with the half-time break almost reached without conceding, their backline was broken. Harewood found himself given too much room by Sunderland's captain Gary Breen, and swung a left boot at the ball. Whether the striker meant for his effort to end up in the direction it did was unclear, with his strike looking very much like a slice. What was clear was the result that stemmed from it; in off the post, one nil to the play-off contenders.
Whilst those in the stands who'd made the lengthy trip from Wearside kept them themselves entertained with the traditional fancy-dress attire that marks Sunderland's final away trip of the season, those watching at home must have wondered if Sunderland's SKY TV hoodoo was in full force once again. Earlier that month, the Black Cats had been on show to the watching world twice, picking up just one point in their encounters with Reading and Ipswich Town.
Perhaps, then, McCarthy instructed his men to go out and put on a show in the second half. Whatever was said, it worked. Chasing every ball from the moment action re-started, the red and whites were a changed team, one full of vigour, industry and endeavour.
It wasn't long until they were on level terms. Nice build-up play sliced open the home defence before Julio Arca, more often noted for his Argentine wizardry, bundled in the scrappiest of finishes. A star performer throughout the season, Arca's glee upon ending up in a heap in the back of the net was evident for all to see, and indicative of the South American's never-say-die commitment to the Wearside cause.
From thereon in, three points were only ever likely to end up in the hands of the visitors. Sunderland pressed and pushed, hassled and harried, but couldn't break down the walls of the The Hammers defence. Notably, that defence included current red and white centre back Anton Ferdinand, who, alongside Elliott Ward, was granted the task of dealing with the Chris Brown and the prolific Marcus Stewart.
But it was neither of those men who sealed the win, and the championship, for McCarthy and his men. With the clock winding down and both sets of fans relatively happy with sharing the spoils, up popped substitute Stephen Elliot to ruin the script. Advancing on the goal of Jimmy Walker, the Irishman looked up before hitting a superb angled shot past The Hammers' goalkeeper, and the away end exploded into a state of superhero-filled frenzy.
It was not all doom and gloom for West Ham and Pardew. Under a month later they reached the play-off final for the second year running and, casting off the shadow that had hung over them since their defeat to Crystal Palace in 2004, they overcame Preston North End courtesy of a Bobby Zamora goal. They subsequently went on to finish ninth in their first season back in the top tier.
Sunderland, having secured the league at Upton Park that night, saw off Stoke City at home on the final day. A full house witnessed Carl Robinson, incidentally, the man interviewed by The Roker Report this week, score the only goal of the game. The following evening, fans lined Fawcett Street and trotted to the Stadium of Light for the an end of year celebration, never anticipating the horrors that would befall them on their return to English football's high table.
Sunday afternoon's curtain call will have a lot less riding on it than the encounter six years ago did. West Ham's devastating collapse at Wigan last week saw them consigned to the Championship once again, and saw Avram Grant's four-year contract torn up almost instantaneously. Sunderland, meanwhile, hampered by a loss of form and an abundance of injuries, will join their hosts in willing the season's end. It's little wonder the SKY TV cameras won't be there this time around.
For more preview of the West Ham game, you can't go far wrong with the Roker Report Podcast. Award nominated, and once hitting the dizzying heights of No.10 in the iTunes Chart. Easily the best SAFC chatter you'll hear on the interweb, so come and get involved... http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-roker-report-podcast-www/id437085978