IT was the season which promised so much. After two successive seventh-placed finishes in the Premier League, hopes were high that Sunderland would finally qualify for Europe at the third time of asking.
Yet 2001/02 proved to be another false dawn, as the momentum built up by Peter Reid and his men since the opening of the Stadium of Light was mercilessly drained away.
Despite saving our top flight status with a point at home against Derby County on the final day, the campaign which saw us finish fourth from bottom has largely become the forgotten season.
This is undoubtedly due to the two record breaking relegations which followed in the ensuing seasons - but 2001/02 was a defining moment in the club’s modern history.
“We don’t need much, we just need one or two quality players,” was the view of many fans during the early years of the new Millennium, when we came so close to reaching the promised land of Europe for the first time since 1973/74.
There were calls for chairman Bob Murray to splash the cash, but it simply didn’t happen. Instead of building on the British backbone which had served the club so well during the Reid years, key players were allowed to leave without being adequately replaced.
It was the start of an immensely frustrating and confusing period for supporters, who had endured the departures of star wingers Allan Johnston and Nicky Summerbee, as well as dependable hard men Kevin Ball, Paul Butler and Chris Makin, all within a two-year period.
The relentless unravelling continued in the summer of 2001, when star midfielder Don Hutchison left for West Ham after just one, albeit outstanding season, while Alex Rae and Danny Dichio, the man groomed to become the long-term replacement for Niall Quinn, soon followed Hutchinson out of the door in the first three months of the campaign.
There was a flicker of excitement when Murray forked out £3.5m, which wasn’t such a modest sum back in 2001, on Julio Arca’s former Argentinian youth team colleague, Nicholas Medina.
But the young midfielder was untested in the English game, and the same could be said for pacey French prospect David Bellion, who signed on a free transfer from Cannes, and fellow freebie Baki Mercimek, who joined from Haarlem.
Swiss right back Bernt Haas was a £750,000 arrival from Grasshopper, but rather than adding depth to the squad, the defender was seen as a like-for-like replacement for French loanee Patrice Carteron, who had made a good impression the previous season, and scored a memorable goal against the Mags.
The club’s only other sizeable outlay that summer was on French striker Lilian Laslandes, a £3.6m arrival from Bordeaux.
The 2001/02 season started with a 1-0 home win over Ipswich – a Kevin Phillips penalty ensuring it was business as usual at the Stadium of Light.
A run of goals from Superkev, including one in a derby day draw at St James’ Park, steered Sunderland up to fifth place in September.
But a lack of consistency saw Reid’s side struggle after a 2-0 win at Bolton, a match which saw Phillips score his 100th league goal in just 147 league games for the Lads.
Reid’s answer was to bring in Jason McAteer from Blackburn in October, adding much needed Premier League experience, but Sunderland went on to suffer defeats against Leicester and Liverpool.
Sandwiched in between, however, was an impressive 2-0 home victory over Leeds. The game, which stopped the high-flying Yorkshiremen from topping the table, featured an iconic goal from Phillips – firing home on the half volley from 20 yards, after an exquisite knock-down from Quinn.
But the much-loved Irishman was getting older, and his replacement Laslandes struggled to make an impact, with a late strike in a league cup defeat at Sheffield Wednesday his only notable contribution.
Keen to add goals, Reid parted with £4m of the club’s coffers to sign attacking midfielder Claudio Reyna from Rangers in December.
And there was an encouraging resurgence over the Christmas period, with American Reyna scoring the winner against Everton, before Kevin Kilbane completed the scoring in a 3-0 win over Blackburn at Ewood Park on Boxing Day.
But an alarming run of nine league games without a win followed, and Reid threw the dice again, bringing in the legendary Cameroonian striker Patrick M’boma on loan, and he scored in a 2-1 defeat at Spurs, before embarking on a memorable cartwheel celebration.
The dreadful run ended when McAteer scored the winner in a home victory over Bolton in March.
Reyna scored a spectacular brace to see-off Leicester in a 2-1 home win, but the slide continued, and Sunderland finished the season with two consecutive draws to finish an unspectacular 17th.
This was the season where Sunderland had to show ambition if the club’s hierarchy were really serious about maximising the potential of the SoL and the incredible fanbase.
The sky was the limit, but whether the required financial resources where available, is a matter for debate.
The club’s decision to replace established and reliable players with cut price imports was not a success. Medina didn’t play a single first team game. The impact of the other signings was limited at best, and the squad badly missed the departed Hutchison & co.
The fact we stayed up meant it wasn’t a complete disaster. It was only one poor season in five, and there were obvious lessons to be learned about recruitment.
But the downward trend, and the erratic transfer policy continued, and the record breaking relegation which followed in 2002/03 was perhaps inevitable.
Sunderland missed their opportunity to join the elite, and apart from a brief spell under Steve Bruce in 2010, have never since threatened the upper echelons of the game.
However, the short term approach of patching up the squad in the face of adversity, an approach which has plagued the club for years, can be evidenced as far back as that often-forgotten 2001/02 season.