Back in December 2011, things were looking pretty bleak. Despite finishing 10th the previous season, the run of three Premier League victories out of the last fourteen fixtures at the back end of that campaign had spilled over into the new season.
This was despite a decent wedge of investment being dispensed in transfer fees on the likes of John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Craig Gardner and Connor Wickham, as well as the outlay on wages for Seb Larsson who joined on a free transfer.
The main issue was goals - or the lack thereof. The dramatic drop-off the previous year had been a direct result of losing Darren Bent to Aston Villa in January, and as the summer transfer window of 2011 came to a close, we also lost Asamoah Gyan who joined Al-Ain in Abu Dhabi on loan.
Nicklas Bendtner was swiftly brought in to plug the gap and help the young Connor Wickham, and more importantly, provide a foil for Stephane Sessegnon in the final third, but nobody would deny that our front line had been dramatically downgraded in the space of eight months.
This would ultimately see the downfall of the Steve Bruce era as Sunderland manager, and from the bleakness in December 2011 came hope. When Martin O’Neill was appointed his successor, it was something many Sunderland fans had hoped pinned their hopes on for a number of years, and it was now a reality.
O’Neill had been out of work for just over a year after resigning as manager of Aston Villa in August 2010, but was persuaded by Niall Quinn to take the job on despite us sitting one place above the relegation zone.
The ex-Leicester City manager hit the ground running and after initially lifting us up to 8th in the Premier League by mid-March, we eventually tailed off and finished 13th, but there was optimism around where he could take us after his first pre-season in charge.
By the time we met Arsenal at the Emirates on the opening day of the season only Carlos Cuellar made his debut for the club, and by the time Alan Pardew and his Newcastle side were scheduled to visit the Stadium of Light on this day nine years ago, only Danny Rose and Louis Saha were newcomers to the Sunderland matchday squad.
The derby was our seventh fixture of the season and first impressions of O’Neill’s side were that we were difficult to beat with having only suffered defeat once - by at the same time we had only won once and were struggling for goals.
In the build-up, Martin O’Neill would have been grateful to Steven Taylor for providing his team-talk when he stated that there were no Sunderland players who were good enough to make the Newcastle United starting XI, but any thought that the players would come out of the blocks to prove him wrong were in tatters after only three minutes.
After good work from Ben Arfa down Sunderland’s left hand side resulted in a Demba Ba shot that was smartly saved by Simon Mignolet, but only fell to Yohan Cabaye to slot into the bottom corner.
It was clear our problem was creating chances and ultimately scoring goals, and not even the sending off of Cheick Tiote just before the half hour, with a reckless, high challenge on Steven Fletcher, went anyway to making us threaten the Newcastle goal with an equaliser.
It said everything that Danny Rose was the best player on the pitch in red and white, and in game that was high on drama and vigour but low on quality and goalmouth action, it was possibly apt that our equaliser came as a result of a set-piece.
With only four minutes left on the clock, a Seb Larsson free-kick was first met by John O’Shea who saw his header deflect directly off Demba Ba’s face to divert the ball past Tim Krul.
It was one we maybe got away with and it only went to highlight the issues with the squad at O’Neill’s disposal which he commented on following the final whistle:
Newcastle were very strong, they caused us plenty of problems and, although the sending off gave us an opportunity, we didn’t take enough time and care in the final third. Sheer pressure alone eventually yielded us the goal and we had time to get another but, with Newcastle having defended so strongly with 10 men, that would have been harsh on them.
We were knocked back by the early goal which gives them a massive lift. They were very strong in the initial part of the game and then they had the man sent off.
Numerically, we should be able to use that better but I thought at that stage we became a bit anxious. In the second half it was just the sheer pressure that led to the equalising goal. Newcastle played excellently with the 10 men.
I must admit, slog or not, the noise that erupted from the stadium when we equalised was something that I will not forget.
A run of one win in the next eight fixtures followed and after dropping into the relegation zone in early December, it was clear it was going to be another long season.
Barclays Premier League
Sunday 21st October 2012
Sunderland 1-1 Newcastle United
(Ba (OG) 86’ - Cabaye 3’)
Sunderland: Mignolet, Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Rose, Johnson (Vaughan), Larsson, Colback, McClean, Sessegnon (Saha), Fletcher Substitutes not used: Westwood, Bardsley, Kilgallon, Meyler, Campbell
Newcastle United: Krul, Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini (Taylor), Santon, Ben Arfa (Obertan), Tiote, Cabaye, Gutierrez, Ameobi (Perch), Ba Substitutes not used: Harper, Ferguson, Anita, Cisse