Long before Joshua King hammered the final nail in Sunderland’s relegation coffin, large sections of our fanbase had already started the process of self-comfort and reassurance. In pubs across Wearside and beyond people retold tales of our previous seasons in the Championship: exciting promotion races, plenty of more local away games, big allocations and seeing us win more than four games a season. What’s not to like?
Of course, we could return to the dark days of Terry Butcher and Mick Buxton and hover around the lower echelons of the second tier of English football, but despite our shambolic state on and off the field allow yourself to take a deep breath, stick your fingers in your ears and reminisce about Sunderland promotion campaigns of the past; starting with Mick McCarthy’s red and white wizards of 2004-05.
During nostalgic pub talk of previous Sunderland sides this promotion rarely gets discussed with much fondness, and often isn’t mentioned much at all. Maybe it’s because it is hard to talk about this season in isolation without also remembering the horrors of our 2005-06 relegation campaign. Maybe it’s because there were few thrills or spills along the way and despite consistently good results the average attendance was under 30,000 - the game that saw us gain promotion only attracted a crowd of 34, 815. Great attendances in comparison to other clubs, but it highlights the lack of excitement around the club at the time.
Sure, that season didn’t feature the swashbuckling attacking football of 1998-99 or the incredible surge up the table of Roy Keane’s side, but in hindsight this promotion was very impressive in a different way.
Despite a relatively slow start to the season in which the football at times was poor, the lads didn’t lose back to back games at any point throughout the campaign - in fact they won 8 games in a row during the second half of the season and won 13 games away from home! Impressive statistics that really should evoke a great deal of pride and joy, but really don’t.
Going into the campaign we weren’t favourites by any means to gain promotion back to the Premier League. The previous season had been full of promise, but ultimately ended with a great deal of frustration after heartbreaking defeats in both the FA cup and the play-off semi-finals (how awful was that Whitley penalty?). There was a genuine sense of opportunities being missed and our summer business did little to inspire anyone. The latter part of that last sentence sounds all too familiar, and in all honesty it looks like this summer we will have to forget about multi-million pound signings and the arrival of star names. Instead, we will have to take gambles on relative unknowns and hidden gems as well as attempting to add Championship experience.
However, if our signings over the next couple of months turn out to be as successful as McCarthy’s transfer dealings were back in 2004 then we should be in for a decent season. Most of his signings played a crucial role in our promotion push with Mick Mack unearthing a few of the aforementioned hidden gems. The likes of Stephen Elliott, Dean Whitehead, and Liam Lawrence hadn’t played a game of Championship football between them, but all turned out to have great debut campaigns at the Stadium of Light.
Elliott in particular became a real hit with the fans with a combination of classy finishing and showing a great understanding of what the club is all about. Other signings who played a significant role in the team included Steven Caldwell, Carl Robinson and Danny Collins - the latter signing in October 2004 and going on to be a firm fan-favourite. He also blended youth with experience with the arrivals of fan favourite Michael Bridges whilst later adding Brian Deane on a free transfer.
As well as success in the transfer market McCarthy handled expectations around the club very well. Early on in the season when we won just one of our opening six games he didn’t get carried away with things or turn on his players but rather he insisted that the people of Sunderland deserved better. Later, when the lads were in the hunt for promotion he talked up importance of momentum and our chances of returning to the Premier League, and after a rare defeat he defended his players and endeavoured to make sure that normal service was resumed the following game. Mick’s handling of the season as a whole was superb if truth be told, and he deserves a lot of credit for the manner in which he was able to control things at the club. Any new manager would do well to take heed from his leadership during this relatively difficult time for the club off the field - a position in which we once again find ourselves.
Despite it not being the most memorable promotion in the club’s history there were still plenty of exiting matches along the way. A 4-0 demolition of Gillingham got the season really up and rolling, and a 2-0 win over the highly fancied ‘Ipswich Town put down a marker for the rest of the division. The spirit of the side was in evidence on many occasions too; Marcus Stewart’s late goal at Nottingham Forest sent the travelling fans into raptures, as did a comprehensive second half performance to come from a goal behind to defeat QPR. But the most memorable game other than the one that won promotion was the 1-0 victory over Wigan to put us in pole position for the title. Over 8,000 Sunderland fans made the journey to Lancashire and were celebrating just five minutes in when Marcus Stewart swept the ball into the bottom corner. Throughout the game the Lads stifled the threat of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington, in turn securing the three points and sending Sunderland well on their way back to the promised land.
Despite the humiliating season which was to follow, the 04-05 season is perhaps wrongly overlooked when it comes to ranking our promotions. There was real togetherness throughout the team as we reached an impressive 94 points. Mick McCarthy’s 04/05 Sunderland were a plucky group of relative unknowns determined to prove their worth - and if new manager Simon Grayson can replicate their unity and strength then perhaps something special could unfold this coming campaign.