Exactly a month after a 3-1 Premiership defeat at Highbury that had proved to be the final game of the Peter Reid era, Sunderland returned to the capital on this day 19 years ago for a Worthington Cup 3rd round fixture with his replacement Howard Wilkinson now in charge.
Still getting to know his squad, the new manager made nine changes to the starting line-up that had begun Sunderland’s previous fixture, and whilst the team he put out was a mixture of inexperienced and fringe players, what they lacked in cohesion they more than made up for in bottle.
Two down after a little over half an hour the unfamiliar side stuck to their task well and ended up producing a superb second half fight back that had supporters thinking Wilkinson could be just the man to harness the talent at his disposal.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger had also shuffled his pack for the game and it was the returning Robert Pires that opened the scoring with 12 minutes played. The current Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, Pires was coming back from a cruciate ligament injury but showed no signs of rustiness when he rifled in long range drive after Giovanni van Bronckhorst pulled to ball back to him from a free-kick.
The hosts continued to push after that, with Francis Jeffers going close with two efforts before finding his range and putting away a third chance. Kanu was influential throughout the first half and he created the opening, driving up the pitch before feeding Jeffers to slip his markers and guide the ball home.
At half time it seemed like job done for the reigning league champions, but the Lads quickly set about a turnaround, pulling themselves back into the game ten minutes after the break.
On only his second start it was Kevin Kyle that scored the goal with a well-timed jump and header after Marcus Stewart had flicked the ball on. It was then Stewart himself that completed the reversal, but his quick fire double was assisted brilliantly by another young attacking prospect.
Local lad Michael Proctor, who is now back at the Academy of Light as a coach, had earned rave reviews as he came through the ranks and on his first start for the senior team he showed his potential even further. His well judged left wing cross was glanced home by Stewart with 70 minutes gone and moments later he played the ball out wide for Matt Piper to whip in another superb cross for Stewart to nod in and make it 3-2 and put Sunderland through.
Cup games can often provide a chance for players to stake a claim and after doing so well Proctor featured heavily for the rest of the season. It was not the same for some of his teammates however, many of whom were bombed out by Wilkinson.
Despite playing a key role following his introduction as a substitute Piper has since spoken about how he fell foul of the boss and the man he replaced on the night, Stefan Schwarz, also fell out of the picture along with captain for the evening Emerson Thome and Darren Williams.
Williams had put in a particularly good performance against Arsenal, as did debutant Mark Rossiter. Unfortunately for the Irishman though he was injured later on in the season whilst on international duty and had to move into semi-professional football as a result. The evening proved to be a false dawn for Wilkinson too and if people thought the final stages of Reid’s reign were bad they were nothing on his tenure, despite what was actually a decent start.
The Worthington Cup win was Wilkinson’s first victory as Sunderland manager and was part of a five game unbeaten run. He was unable to build on from there however, and Sunderland were embarrassed by First Division Sheffield United in the next round. Including an extra time defeat of Bolton Wanderers and a penalty shoot-out success over Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, Wilkinson only managed a further four wins and with the club spiralling out of control he didn’t even see out the 2002-03 campaign.