The period from late October through to mid-November were tough weeks to be a Sunderland fan.
The team endured a number of setbacks in a six-game winless run which seemed to shatter the confidence of some players, leaving them fragile and wary of defeat. If winning becomes a habit, then losing certainly can be and until that much-needed, spirited home win against Ipswich on November 20th things were looking bleak.
We needed to break the poor run as further defeats could have left us with too much to do for automatic promotion this season.
We have done that in style, responding with a major improvement on the pitch with 14 points gained from the last 18 in League One.
If people think that the run of defeats we suffered last month constitutes a miserable run, it is nothing like the one under Howard Wilkinson in 2002-3 which eventually took Sunderland to relegation from the Premiership on 19 points.
We beat Liverpool in front of over 37,000 fans at the SSoL on 15 December and from then on did not win a single match that season, drawing just two games and somehow contriving to lose every game from 18 January until 11 April 2003.
Black Cats’ fans endured 16 consecutive league defeats, and that was with goalscoring hero Kevin Phillips in the team.
To be fair to our star striker, he did not get the service from the wings, Niall Quinn was limited to appearances as substitute, and the telepathy was just not there with his replacement, Tore Andre Flo.
How Wilkinson originally came on board was not a happy story. He was part of the England set-up as Technical Director, when contacted “for advice” by Chairman Bob Murray after Peter Reid’s departure in early October 2002. I loved the Reid era, with those two top seven finishes in the Premiership, but the team had not been rebuilt successfully and trying to replace Quinn with what proved to be the rip-off striker Flo led to a poor start.
Somehow the Yorkshireman, who was not known for his charisma, talked himself into the job. He had won the First Division championship in 1992 with Leeds United, the season before the creation of the Premier League, and curiously that remains the last time an English manager won the top-flight league in England.
Not known for his charm and magnetism, but famous for his dinosaur long-ball, percentage football tactics, Wilkinson was interviewed on 5Live’s Sport Report as Leeds emerged from the pack to go top of the league in their last championship season. To the question: “Howard - how does it feel to be top of the League” he retorted “It won’t make the sun shine tomorrow”.
To say that Wilkinson did not inspire at Sunderland is an understatement. Murray was actually rather patient, bearing in mind that Dean Smith was sacked by Aston Villa a couple of weeks ago for a run of five defeats. When Wilkinson was sacked in mid-March ahead of Mick McCarthy taking the helm, we had not won in 11 games.
Back to this season, it is good to have a break from the physical intensity of League One, and our Carabao Cup run has certainly provided that. That win on penalties at Championship play-off hopefuls QPR on 26th October was a truly morale-boosting result, showing that this team is capable of mixing it in the Championship. The prospect of a visit to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal on 21 December is actually quite mouth-watering.
As a long-term Sunderland fan, my two visits to the Gunners’ previous ground, Highbury, yielded positive outcomes. In 1983 I saw Colin West starring in a 2-1 win there and despite having witnessed the 7-0 victory at Cambridge in the previous 2002 League Cup round, Peter Reid’s final victory, I and many Black Cats fans did not expect anything from the evening game under Wilkinson on 6 November, 2002.
We had a solid-looking defence featuring George McCartney, Emerson Thome and Stanislav Varga, but after Arsenal struck two goals in just over half an hour the idea of Sunderland winning this match seemed inconceivable.
In the 9th minute, Darren Williams fouled Kanu and Giovanni van Bronckhorst pulled a low free-kick back from the left for Robert Pires to power a 20-yard drive through a crowd of players.
Former Evertonian Francis Jeffers, returning from a long-term injury had a couple of efforts, first driving across the face of the goal and then sending a shot straight into the arms of our goalkeeper Jurgen Macho. If Jeffers’ aim was amiss for those chances, he proved more accurate 12 minutes before the break. Kanu ran from the half-way line and then measured his pass through to Jeffers, who slipped two defenders to steer the ball into the net.
But on a rare good night for manager Wilkinson Sunderland came out transformed after the break and took the game to Arsenal. In the 56th minute Marcus Stewart’s back-flick from a corner allowed 21-year-old Kevin Kyle, a young but old-fashioned style of centre forward, to rise above the Arsenal defenders and power home a close-range header. We equalised in the 70th minute through a Stewart header after Michael Proctor had crossed superbly from the left.
At this point I was thinking about a replay at the Stadium of Light but just two minutes later the Lads’ comeback was complete when Stewart headed his second of the night, getting in ahead of Oleg Luzhny as the home defence panicked to convert substitute Matthew Piper’s cross.
Delirious scenes followed from the large away contingent in a 19,000 crowd; the Red and White Army got the impression that Wilkinson might turn things round – this was his first win – but it proved to be a false dawn, despite our 2-0 win at over Spurs at the SSoL just four days later.
The Yorkshireman’s record of just four wins in 27 competitive matches led to many questioning his appointment in the first place, just as I am doing now, and led his March 2003 dismissal, a very short tenure as Sunderland’s boss. Mick McCarthy came in that same month and took a relegated and dispirited side back into the Premiership the next season.
In contrast to 2002 then, when that win at Arsenal could have launched our season, whatever happens at The Emirates Stadium on 21 December, in my opinion we need promotion more than winning any cup.
I understand that some players who may not be able to motivate themselves, say, on a wet January Tuesday at Fleetwood would be lifted by playing Premier League opposition away from home. This happened twice under Jack Ross when we gained cup wins at Sheffield Utd. and Burnley but subsequently failed in the League One play-offs.
Our management needs to drive home the club’s priority, which has to be the need to get out of this league so that we are closer to where the club belongs – and so we can restore the Tyne-Wear rivalry next season.