Sunderland, perched on the edge of the play-off places at the end of January, travelled down to play an Ipswich Town side also in contention for promotion.
History sometimes echos rather than repeats itself entirely, and so, as Lee Johnson prepares for the trip to Portman Road this coming Tuesday, let’s take a look back at one classic encounter between two clubs whose stories often feel inexplicably intertwined.
Back in the New Year of 2004, Sunderland had progressed to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup following a 1-0 win over Hartlepool United. Our monkey-hanging friends had travelled up the A19 to witness Julio Arca score in front of a Sunderland crowd of over 40,000, buoyed by a three game winning run over in the League over Christmas achieved by manager Mick McCarthy.
Sunderland brought Darren Williams, Tommy Smith and Paul Thirlwell into the side to face the Tractor Boys, replacing Stephen Wright, Marcus Stewart and John Oster in response to their defeat away at Millwall in the League the previous week. Joe Royle’s Ipswich Town had some familiar names in their starting line-up, including future Sunderland ‘keeper Kelvin Davis in goal, Tommy Miller - who would join the Lads the following season - in defence, and the prolific duo of Pablo Counago and Shefki Kuqi up front. Ipswich’s teenage striking sensation, Darren Bent - whose goals would take them to the play-offs - wasn’t in their squad, which would have come as some relief to our centre back pairing of Phil Babb and Joachim Bjorklund.
The game, as has been so often the case down the years, was an even affair; two decent sides with Premier League experience and quality throughout, separated by one point in the league, going toe-to-toe for a place in the Fifth Round draw.
Kevin Kyle had the first opportunity of the opening half, but put his shot wide after chesting-down a cross inside the box, before he and Jeff Whitley spurned a double chance to score, with the latter seeing his shot blocked on the line.
The half remained goalless until the 45th minute, when Tommy Smith got between the Ipswich central defenders to sweep home a low cross from Darren Williams from the right wing. Royle would later call it a “soft goal” due to the ease by which Williams broke away down the wing, having plenty of time and space to pick out the man in the middle.
The second half was notable for the performance of Mart Poom - the big Estonian stopper making save after save, most notably a magnificent one-handed effort from Kuqi. His strike partner Counago also headed over the bar, and it looked like Ipswich would draw level before Julio Arca scored to put the result beyond doubt.
Sunderland could count themselves fortunate to double their lead. Thirlwell had been hacked down as he made a mazy run through midfield towards the Ipswich box. Davis failed to collect the ball from Jason McAteer’s free kick, gifting Julio Arca with the opportunity to tap home from inside the six-yard box.
Dutch substitute (and Championship Manager legend) Martijn Reuser’s 89th minute goal teed up a nervous injury time period for Sunderland, but they held on to claim a hard-fought victory.
After the game, Mick Mac was optimistic about his side’s prospects of a run to the later stages of the competition, telling The Guardian:
Who knows how far we’re going to go? And it’s a nice bit of money, isn’t it?... As a kid I always wanted to play in a FA Cup final, as a player I had a few runs, with Millwall I think. I still believe it’s a really exciting competition.
Little did he know how far we’d go, and it would be another decade before Sunderland could get within a game of qualifying for European competition. It would transpire that our bogey club, Millwall, would end our FA Cup dreams at the semi-final stage at Old Trafford in the spring, claiming a place in the UEFA Cup in the process.
It would be a doubly-disappointing end to the season overall, with the Black Cats joining Ipswich in losing in the semi-finals of the First Division play-offs, but the heartache would provide Mick and the players with extra motivation for a Championship-winning campaign in the following season.