On April 23rd 2005 the equation was simple for Sunderland - better Ipswich’s result at Elland Road, and the lads would be champions.
But, naturally, it wouldn’t be a smooth ride for Mick McCarthy’s table topping Black Cats. Before the game had even kicked off there were worrying issues to contend with. Experienced goalkeepers Thomas Myhre and Mart Poom were both absent and young Welshman Michael Ingham has looked a bag of nerves when called upon against Reading and Ipswich.
So, the stage was set for 18-year-old Ben Alnwick to become a hero on his Sunderland debut. Little was known about the young stopper from Prudhoe, but I had seen him play before in a reserve game at Durham City’s ground. Please ensure you are seated before reading the next section, but on the night in question Sunderland beat Aston Villa 7-5, with Kevin Kyle getting his name on the score sheet five times. Although Kyle naturally stole the headlines, Alnwick didn’t cover himself in glory. My memory may be doing him a disservice, but I recall him being at fault for at least two of the goals and after the game when I passed him a ball to sign, it slipped through his fingers as he was talking to a fellow player.
So fair to say, I was not confident when I saw that Mick McCarthy had placed his faith in Alnwick for such an important game. However, I should have reasoned that the mere fact he wasn’t Michael Ingham should have been enough to lift anyone’s spirits.
In true Sunderland style, we failed to capitalise on a promising start and went a goal behind as a result of Leicester’s first attack of the game. From inside his own half, Foxes skipper Danny Tiatto found left-back Maybury, who shrugged off Stephen Wright and tucked the ball inside the far post to stun the Stadium of Light.
At 1-0 down, Sunderland had to weather something of a storm, just minutes after taking the lead Leicester had a golden opportunity to score. The ball broke for Mark de Vries after an initial miskick which wrong-footed Ben Alnwick, but the youngster recovered superbly to stick out a leg which deflected the Dutchman’s goal bound shot away from danger. Alnwick also had to be at his best to deny David Connolly shortly after, as he kept the home side in with a shout. Connolly was also unlucky to see his header disallowed for a foul on Stephen Wright.
But, Sunderland were soon level - after 23 minutes the ball broke to Chris Brown around 30 yards from goal, he slid an excellent through ball to Marcus Stewart which the former Ipswich man allowed to roll across his body before drilling the ball into the bottom corner of Ian Walker’s goal.
The second half wasn’t as frantic but Sunderland had the best chance to put themselves in front when Dean Whitehead picked out Marcus Stewart inside the six-yard box - his header was kept out through a great piece of improvisation from Ian Walker.
But the hosts weren’t going to be denied for much longer and Steven Caldwell climbed highest to power home the winner. The lads saw the game out to uphold their part of the bargain - but the Stadium of Light still held its breath to hear of events at Elland Road.
Eventually, the full time result came through… Leeds 1-1 Ipswich.
This was enough for Sunderland to earn promotion back to the Premier League. Of course we all know what happened next, but as a 9-year-old I immediately started dreaming of beating the likes of Man United and Arsenal at the Stadium of Light. The European dream was on with Mick McCarthy’s red and white wizards.