It’s difficult to describe the Howard Wilkinson era as anything other than bloody awful. It was. It was probably comparable only to the reign of David Moyes in recent times.
All hope was gone, and the team – which, on paper was decent enough – were left floundering and waving their arms in despair.
Speaking on our live 24-hour pod on Saturday morning before the Plymouth match, Peter Reid was very generous in his comments about Wilkinson – after all, he’d won the title with Leeds only a decade earlier – but by god, he sucked the life out of the club.
Like Moyes, he was just the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
We ended the season with 19 points and Mick McCarthy in the dugout – eight of those points were accumulated by Reid in the nine league games he oversaw; sacking him after a defeat away to Arsenal, following wins over Villa in the league and Cambridge (7-0) in the cup didn’t seem to make sense, timing-wise. In truth, it still doesn’t.
However, at the time, relegation wasn’t in anyone’s thoughts. Yes, we’d come off the back of a poor season in comparison to the two that had gone before, but we had the likes of Sorensen, Phillips, Quinn and Gray – Tore Andre Flo had been signed for big – and we were looking to get back into the top half, rather than be sucked into a relegation scrap.
And, in those early days of Wilkinson’s reign, we looked as if we were going to be alright. In his first 10 games the team registered 10 points – 18 points from 19 games wasn’t going to set the world alight, but it certainly didn’t hint at the dire straits that were to come.
Up to this point, Wilkinson’s only league win as Sunderland manager had come at home to Spurs. On this day 19 years ago, he registered his second, and last.
We’d somehow managed a draw at Liverpool only three games earlier – Jurgen Macho in inspired form. Those three subsequent games saw three defeats and no goals, stretching our goalless run to so the pressure was on for game in front of the Sky cameras.
Not that Liverpool were in fine form. Gerard Houllier’s team had lost their last three, too, and Sunderland – backed by a buoyant crowd – began in a confident mood.
Kevin Kilbane went close early on, flashing a shot past Kirkland’s post, before Super Kev shot just wide after nice link-up play with Flo.
Milan Baros, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen all failed to test Macho with efforts before Sunderland took the lead, thanks to a rare goal from Gavin McCann. The former Everton midfielder won the ball ahead of Gerrard, played a one-two with Flo, and beautifully lifted the ball over Kirkland’s head into the South Stand net.
Macho saved from Baros and Murphy, before Sunderland had a golden chance to extend the lead. Ref Mark Halsey awarded the home side a penalty following a Carragher handball from a Phillips header.
Despite Phillips being on the field, McCann stepped up to take the spot kick, but his tame effort was easily saved by Kirkland.
Predictably, in the second half, Liverpool’s pressure told and Baros fired an equaliser past Macho.
Liverpool piled on the pressure, and with ten minutes remaining, Wilkinson brought on youngster Michael Proctor.
Proctor, who’d been a highly rated prospect before suffering serious injuries, had been enjoying a successful loan spell at Bradford before Wilkinson recalled him shortly after being appointed manager. Proctor had never been given a league chance by Reid, but Wilkinson, impressed by his work rate, had thrown him in.
And on this occasion it paid dividends, as the youngster somehow managed to squirm the ball home and seal a precious three points for the lads.
The crowd went wild, and hoped it was a sign things were back on track.
Little did we know...
Sunderland 2-1 Liverpool
Stadium of Light, 37,118
Goals: McCann 36, Baros 68, Proctor 85.
Sunderland: Macho, Wright, McCartney, Kilbane, Bjorklund, Babb, Thirlwell, McCann, Flo (Stewart 89), Phillips, Gray (Proctor 85). Subs not used: Ingham, Thome, Bellion.
Liverpool: Kirkland, Carragher, Biscan (Diouf 63), Hamman (Riise 46), Henchoz, Traore, Murphy, Gerrard, Baros, Owen, Smicer (Diao 72), Subs not used: Dudek, Babbel.