So what? That’s just what we do isn’t it, give the rest of the league a significant head start, totally give up hope around mid-March before turning into the Brazil side from the 1970’s in April.
But back then things were different - sure, we won three games out of nowhere late on in the season to give us a shot at survival. However, most of the season was a real grind, we didn’t have the best side in the world, we didn’t play the most attractive football but there was a real sense of optimism around the club. Despite being a limited side we played positive football at home full of endeavor and fight which was optimized by the number of late goals we scored that season.
Roy Keane divides opinion on Wearside, people will point to the amount of money he spent on average players and there are a number of fair arguments to suggest his time on Wearside was ultimately a failure, but I simply love the bloke.
He and Niall Quinn breathed life back into the club after many people had lost faith on the back of two record low points totals in just four seasons. After our first record low points relegation in 2003, all the euphoria of the Reid era had seemingly evaporated. Even during Mick Mac’s promotion season of 2004-2005 it was attritional and uninspiring which was reflected in the number of sub 30,000 crowds we saw at the Stadium of Light during that time. No doubt the former Ireland manager did a good job at that level with the resources he had but Keane gave the club a whole new mentality.
Suddenly, mediocrity was no longer tolerated on or off the field, when asked if the team had any injuries after a 4-2 win at Sheffield Wednesday he merely replied "not yet". Sloppiness was no longer accepted off the pitch as late arrivals were left behind before a game at Barnsley. In that championship season the team put together and amazing run of results together losing just once from January 1st onwards, crowds soared and pre-season despair changed to a buzz being created around the club and the town that hadn’t been seen for years.
That was why Premier League survival was so essential that season, relegation and all the optimism would have been crushed and the we reverted to being a yoyo club. But survival brought with it a great foundation to build on and put together a team capable of being a stable Premier League side (or so we thought back then).
Sunderland went into the game on the back of a depressing derby defeat to Newcastle. From the moment it was announced that Paul McShane was to replace Jonny Evans at the heart of our defence, many people on their way to the match would have been demanding the driver to turn the metro around at the nearest available opportunity. Naturally, Michael Owen scored two early goals to condemn us to another dloss against our neighbours (how times change). The defeat only cranked up the pressure ahead of the game at home to the smog monsters from a small town in North Yorkshire.
Of course, we conceded after just four minutes the inconsistent forward Tuncay calmly drove Boro in to lead and the Stadium of Light feared the worst. But remarkably instead of our usual collapse we replied instantly when Danny Higginbotham rose highest to nod us level inside six minutes. Suddenly the atmosphere was electric and the first half was played at a frantic pace, but it looked like the teams would go in level at the break. But Michael Chopra had other ideas after a long ball was played into his stride he got in behind the Boro back four to fire Sunderland into the lead.
There was another twist to come though as the Teesider’s levelled midway through the second half. Afonso Alves' shot trickled agonisingly over the line - that could have proved to be a hammer blow, but typically we never gave up and forced a corner late on. Grant Leadbitter picked out Daryl Murphy who headed the ball off the underside of the bar and over the line, sparking scenes of wild celebration both on the pitch and in the stand.
It’s never dull supporting the lads but this game perhaps shows more than ever that as much as they put us through we should never give up on Sunderland. Hopefully we can get a similar outcome on Sunday, without putting our collective blood pressure under so much strain.