As we approached the end of the first year of a new century, things were looking good.
In fact, things were looking very good.
After winning the second-tier championship in then-record style, we’d taken the Premier League by storm. Phillips and Quinn, supported by the likes of Summerbee and Schwarz, and protected by stars including Sorensen and Bould had secured a seventh-placed finish in our first season up.
And, in truth, it should have been much more.
During the summer of 2000, we’d supplemented the squad with the signings of Stan Varga – who can forget his debut? – and unknown keeper Jurgen Macho.
Another addition to the ranks was Don Hutchison. The signing of the Everton captain, who decided to move on rather than wait for a contract offer from the Toffees, despite having a year left at Goodison Park was a huge coup.
It was a statement of intent: a bonafide Premier League player in the prime of his career choosing to join Peter Reid’s exciting squad.
It felt like we’d arrived.
An opening day victory over Arsenal – Varga’s exquisite display, Macho’s surprise debut. Quinn’s majestic header and Viera’s stray elbow being the highlights – was followed by a defeat to newly promoted Manchester City.
The Manchester City of 2000 was a very, very different proposition to the club of 2020. Very much the poor relations of Manchester, City had been relegated to the third tier in 1998; successive promotions (including that unbelievable play off victory against Gillingham) seeing them return to the top flight in double-quick time.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
The first game ‘back’ saw Varga pick up a terrible early injury, and Bould – Stans’s replacement – suffering likewise.
A 4-2 reverse thanks to two late goals from Paolo Wanchope – the last of which gave the Costa Rican his hat-trick – marked a successful return of top-flight football to Maine Road, and sent Sunderland back across the M62 with ‘work to be done’.
On that August evening, Hutchison made his debut after missing out on the Arsenal clash due to suspension.
And, while a 4-2 reversal against a newly-promoted time may not be the most auspicious of starts, the fixture marked the beginning of a brilliant – but all to shortlived – Sunderland career.
While some supporters – still burnt by the Clark T-shirt debacle – didn’t exactly welcome the signing of Hutchison (the mindset being we should ‘never sign a mag’) the Gateshead born star did his talking on the pitch.
Some wonderfully classy displays in an unfamiliar right midfield position supported the likes of Quinn and Phillips superbly, and he quickly established himself as a fans favourite.
The City defeat in August was one of three in our first five games however, and we were sat 17th come mid-September.
But by the time Manchester City rolled into town for the December reverse fixture we were sixth, having won four of the last five games, including a 2-1 win at Hotpotch Park. Sorensen’s penalty save and Quinny’s header immediately spring to mind, however, our equalising goal – and ensuing celebrations from Hutchison – should never be forgotten either.
For this pre-Christmas fixture, Sunderland were missing Kevin Phillips through suspension, and Hutchison was pushed upfront to partner Niall Quinn, in front of 47,475 at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Craddock, Thome, Gray, Kilbane (Makin 80), Rae, McCann, Arca, Quinn, Hutchison (Dichio 82). Subs not used: Marriott, Varga, Schwarz.
The game itself was relatively uneventful. City, featuring Steve Howey, Alf-Inge Haaland, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jeff Whitley, toiled, as did Sunderland – lacking a cutting edge without Phillips.
The only goal of the game came early in the first half. A free-kick just outside of the Manchester City box was quickly taken by Hutchison and struck past keeper Nicky Weaver. Despite protestations, referee David Elleray allowed the goals to stand, and we hung on for all three points.
Our good run continued, and we headed into the end of in second place. A poor run of one win in 11 followed however, and we just managed to replicate the previous season’s position of seventh with seven points in the last three games.
Hutchison, however, starred throughout – playing 35 games in all competitions and scoring 10 goals – he was, in fact, our second top scorer behind Phillips, who only managed 14 in the league.
Of course, two games into the following season, Hutchison left – a ‘he said, she said’ contract dispute seeing Don head back to West Ham for a fee of £5m. Sunderland may have doubled their money in the space of 12 months, but absolutely no one saw it as a good deal.
It seemed at the time as a massive error – small-time thinking and behaviour. And it subsequently proved to be such.
Hutchison was a class act, a player the team should have been built around. He was simply superb, and that decision marked the beginning of the end for Peter Reid.
As for City, they were relegated – but they bounced straight back the following season, and they’ve stayed there ever since.