Looking back, getting rid of Peter Reid when we did was the wrong decision.
Yes, he could have gone earlier – maybe he should have gone earlier – but the fact we stuck with him, gave him significant cash to spend and proceeded to give him the bullet after eight points from nine league games seemed reactionary to say the least.
After three consecutive losses – Middlesbrough (a), Fulham (h) and Newcastle (a) – we’d beaten Villa 1-0 at home to stem the tide; French forward David Bellion netting the game’s only goal.
The following Tuesday night brought a cup tie that was certainly a ‘potential banana skin’, as the old cliche goes: Cambridge away at the Abbey Stadium.
While it was a far cry from the days of John Beck, boggy corners, buckets of water and long balls being shelled in for 90 minutes, it was still a difficult place to go – and Reid would have been forgiven for thinking the writing was on the wall.
That was reflected in his starting XI, which showed only three changes from the team that started against Villa. New signing Thomas Myhre was given a run out in goal, while Darren Williams, who had replaced the injured Stephen Wright against Villa, started at right-back.
The third change was Marcus Stewart starting up front – he replaced Matt Piper in the 11 (Piper being eased into the first team) – with Bellion moving to right-wing.
Sunderland: Myhre, Williams, Craddock, Babb, Kilbane, Bellion, McCann, Reyna, Arca, Flo, Stewart. Subs: Sorensen, McCartney, Thirlwell, Butler, Kyle.
Predictably, Sunderland had to withstand some early pressure from the hosts – Shane Tudor went shot just over the bar, while Tom Youngs (Football Manager legend) should have scored after quarter of an hour – shooting just wide from six yards out.
Flo went close at the other end for the lads – forcing a great save from Marshall in the Cambridge goal – before Claudio Reyna scored the first in somewhat fortuitous circumstances.
Reyna’s drifted free-kick was just a little too high for Marcus Stewart, but evaded Marshall and flew into the net.
One-nil became two soon after, with Gavin McCann scoring from distance, and that’s how it remained until half time – only Marshall keeping the scoreline down.
Ten minutes after half time, though, Marshall was at fault for our third – letting a shot from Julio through his legs, while great work by McCann, Bellion and Butler set up Marcus Stewart to tap in his first Sunderland goal. Two minutes later, Stewart notched again, another tap in after the keeper saved Bellion’s shot.
Stewart’s strike partner Tore Andre Flo had been goalless ever since his debut strike against Manchester United, but the Norweigian completed the rout with a late double – first slotting home after being set up by Bellion, and then beating the offside trap and slitting past Marshall.
The 7-0 scoreline – incidentally, Cambridge’s heaviest ever home defeat – was a comprehensive statement from both Reid and the players, especially following the Villa win, and it looked as though we were back on track.
As we looked ahead to the coming weeks, we had a tricky away game at Arsenal, followed by West Ham at home, Bolton away, Charlton away and Spurs at home.
It felt as though we had turned a corner, but a 3-1 defeat at Highbury – we were two down in three minutes, lost Sorensen with a serious injury and three down at halftime – forced Bob Murray’s seemingly already-itchy trigger finger.
The decision to get rid of Reid wasn’t a surprise, but the timing certainly was. It was a sad end for a manager who’d transformed the club since arriving in 1995, and had presided over 353 games, winning 159, drawing 95 and losing 99.
In hindsight – due in large part to the replacement he chose – it was one of the biggest mistakes Bob Murray ever made at SAFC.