The 2003-2004 season was a strange one. We had been relegated the year before, having failed to get twenty points. We lamented the end of the Quinn-Phillips era and everything good which had gone with it. There were times at the SoL when the atmosphere lacked intensity. In less attractive fixtures you could meander around the ground and choose your spot for second half viewing from the growing bald patches of seats.
However, Mick McCarthy refused to give in to this melancholic script. His team competed well, winning and drawing their way to a third place end of season finish. We lost to Crystal Palace in the play-offs. They beat us on penalties at home. Less than 35,000 turned up for the game, perhaps unconvinced by this team. We again ended the season downbeat, like the year before.
Writing this in November 2020 it is noteworthy that this is what we used to consider failure.
In amongst that failure was an FA Cup semi-final defeat to Millwall in April 2004. I was at that game and many Sunderland fans who wanted to be there, were not. We couldn’t get enough tickets. Millwall had one end behind one of the goals and the top tier of it was empty.
Our FA Cup run had seen us beat Ipswich, Sheffield United and Premier League Birmingham City. We reached the semi-finals without, it seemed, the epic struggle of previous cup runs or cup games which would live in the memory such as Chelsea at home in 1992.
But here we were, facing the prospect of playing, not Arsenal or Liverpool, but fellow second tier opponents Millwall. And what was more, we were guaranteed European football should we get to the final, win or lose. What a golden opportunity this was after the disappointments of the year before.
Standard procedure for Sunderland supporters in big games is to hope and then to despair. There was no deviation from the script in April 2004. The Millwall game was another example of our inability to triumph on the big occasion. T
he abiding memory is the disappointment rather than any specific part of the game. And because of that, we seem to have largely forgotten this game. I don’t recall it as much talked about when supporters reminisce.
And yet we started well. The fans were in good voice when the players came out of the tunnel and I was confident we could win if only because luck had to go with you sometimes.
In the first minutes we had a free kick on the edge of their box which Arca and Oster stood over. Arca took it and it came to nothing. But the same situation occured again, five minutes further into the game, and Oster smashed it off the underside of the bar, the ball bouncing out.
Millwall then came into the game more. They passed well and held the ball in a way we didn’t. It was difficult to win the ball back and when we did we sent it long, looking for our target man, Kevin Kyle. Kyle gave the Millwall defence a hard time before being taken off in the second half. What he lacked in finesse he made up for in battering ram-ness.
We could do with him this season.
On twenty six minutes George McCartney sold Phil Babb short just outside our box. It was a nothing situation and there was little pressure on him. However, this mistake was pounced on by Millwall. Paul Ifill stole the ball, raced into the box and hit an accurate shot at goal. Mart Poom parried. Tim Cahill followed up with a well placed shot.
Even this would have probably been stopped by Gary Breen if the ball hadn’t taken a slight deflection off George McCartney’s shoulder.
At this point I could segway into a discussion about Tim Cahill and how he has been a scourge on us over the years. I’d rather focus on George McCartney. This was such a rare mistake for him. McCartney was an excellent player in his first period with us. The next season his partnership with Julio Arca down the left was a key reason for our championship winning season.
Regarding Arca himself: I feel sad just thinking about him in that Sunderland team. He was like a relic left behind from a golden age: still class, still trying hard, probably wondering where the team of 2001 had all gone. In a game where we never played like we should have and the fans never got to give full vent to their emotions, Arca was still brilliant.
When he got the ball, he brought it down, controlled it, tried to beat his man, and usually did. He was a courageous player, and skillful, never just looking to ‘get rid’. And towards the end of the game when we were desperately trying to get a goal at one down, and with a man sent off, Arca was sitting outside their box as the ball came in for a corner.
Poom was up there and nearly got it. The ball was blasted clear and Arca was the man to collect. A Milwall player bore down on him. There was nobody between him and our goal. Everything was in disarray. Kick it away? Na.
I’ll take it round him and put it back in. What a player.
Jason McAteer, by contrast, did not have a great game. Somewhere around thirty-five minutes he tripped Kevin Muscat and then advanced about another ten yards to fall onto him, knee first. This triggered a melee and a yellow card. On eighty-six minutes, when we were pressing for an equaliser, McAteer pulled back a Millwall player to prevent a break away near the half way line. He was sent off. That was us done for the day.
We had started the second half well. And we rallied at the end before the sending off.
But it wasn’t enough.
We had beaten Millwall in the semi-final when we won the cup in 1937 and we thumped them memorably, a couple of times, in the nineties.
But they beat us three times that season. They went on to be well beaten by Manchester United in the final. We went back to the day job.