After the embarrassment of a rather undignified relegation with a (then) record low points total, a fire sale had commenced in the weeks before the 03-04 season kicked off. Premier League teams, knowing full well Bob Murray needed the cash, waited and waited; there was only every going to be one party that blinked first.
The likes of Phillips, Reyna, and Flo, who were all still officially Sunderland players as the season kicked off, departed shortly after. Sorensen had left only a week or two earlier, while Kevin Kilbane played the opening month on the left hand side of midfield in Mick McCarthy’s 4-4-2 system, only to shuffle off to Everton at the end of August.
Incomings were limited – freebies Gary Breen, Colin Healey, Tommy Smith and Jeff Whitley all bolstering the squad during the early days of the season, which actually got off to a decent start despite falling to defeat in the opening two games.
Four wins on the bounce followed, however the loss of Kilbane meant the left hand side, which had performed well with Arca playing at full back, needed a reshuffle.
Irish winger Tommy Butler was given the chance to impress, as was young left back Craig James, with Arca pushed further forward. Alan Quinn, on loan from Sheffield Wednesday was also given an opportunity to claim a permanent move; none made much of an impression.
After the strong early run – 8 wins, 2 draws and 1 defeat after the opening two games, the team staggered a little; scoring only 2 goals in 5 games, and McCarthy looked down the A19 in search of inspiration. It arrived in the form of young winger Stewart Downing, who’d made six appearances so far for his Premier League parent club.
Downing debuted at the Hawthorns in a goalless draw a couple of days after arriving, and played and scored in an impressive 3-1 win at the Priestfield Stadium in the next fixture.
He made his home debut in a goalless draw with Coventry, and notched again in a home game versus Wigan – confidently slotting home a late equaliser from the spot after Sunderland had played the second half with ten men following Arca’s second sending off of the season. The lack of penalty takers on the pitch notwithstanding, it took guts for a young on-loan player to take that spot-kick. Downing showed enviable mettle.
The on-loan winger got his third and final goal for Sunderland in the next game, which was the last of his temporary stint. He scored an early opener in a televised fixture against Coventry at Highfield Road. Coventry’s player manager Gary McAllister equalised from the spot – I can’t recall the offence, McAllister probably tripped over a divot 40 yards out and somersaulted into the box, as he’s prone to do.
What I do remember, however, is that this fixture saw Colin Healy suffer an horrendous injury; such a shame for a player who was really looking the part.
In the seven games Downing played, he demonstrated that he was a player of immense promise. His pace, skill and direct attacking threat was something we’d lacked beforehand, and the team benefited greatly from his presence.
Despite McCarthy’s efforts to retain Downing’s services, however, he’d shown enough for Boro to want him to join their Premier League squad, and he ended up playing 20 games for Middlesbrough that season, as Sunderland continued an impressive campaign - ultimately finishing third in the table; an incorrectly allowed Crystal Palace goal standing between the team and a Wembley appearance.
Downing’s place in the team was taken by a combination of Oster, Butler, Tommy Smith and Arca – with a brief appearance by Kevin Cooper, too – but none of them (with the obvious exception of Julio, I don’t want to face accusations of blasphemy) were able to produce the sparkle Downing provided.
Looking back at his spell at Sunderland over ten years later, Downing said:
“The six weeks I spent at Sunderland changed everything and got me noticed. It was a great experience to play at the Stadium of Light.
“I played seven matches and scored three goals. We only lost once in that time and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.
“I always had the confidence that I was good enough and Mick McCarthy was fantastic with me.
“He was the one who wanted to take me on loan and he said ‘you will take this league by storm and it will make you a Premiership player’.”
And Mick was right. As he often was.