What’s your abiding memory of Sunderland’s 2005/06 season?
Any one of our three league victories against Middlesbrough, WBA, and Fulham, perhaps? The first Tyne/Wear derby, where that Steven Elliott goal gave us hope, only for Emre to eventually seal victory for Newcastle? Or perhaps it was just the sheer ignominy of being relegated having broken our own record for the lowest number of points accrued over a 38-game season.
All of these were memorable, but for me, the thing that stood out then, and still does now, was the way that Mick McCarthy conducted himself over the course of what was one of the most soul-destroying seasons in our recent history.
In many ways, McCarthy was swimming against the tide from day one at Sunderland. Arriving after the ill-fated tenure of Howard Wilkinson and working with the remnants of Peter Reid’s squad, he nevertheless embraced the challenge with gusto, promising to ‘do his damnedest to keep us in the Premier League’.
His first mission ended in failure, as did his attempt to secure an instant top-flight return, but following the disappointment of the 2003/2004 season, McCarthy oversaw a successful campaign the following season, taking us up as league champions and ensuring that our top-flight exile was short.
Even before a ball was kicked at the start of 2005/06, however, most of us knew that despite the elation of achieving promotion, the season would be a grind. Money was still incredibly tight, and to augment the likes of Championship standouts such as Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence, McCarthy had to make do with loans, such as Justin Hoyte and Anthony Le Tallec, and bargain-basement signings, such as Jon Stead, Tommy Miller, Nyron Nosworthy and Andy Gray.
As the season started, even a cursory glance at our squad hinted at what was in store, and an opening-day defeat against Charlton set the tone, as a certain future SAFC striker – Darren Bent – bagged a brace on his debut for The Addicks.
Nevertheless, despite the defeats and the frustrations that followed (the 1-1 home draw against WBA was a notable sickener) McCarthy ploughed admirably on, no doubt driven by a sense of duty to the club and the fans that he clearly had such an affinity for.
That victory against Boro was greeted by a joyous release of emotion, as small mercies were celebrated like colossal triumphs. Afterwards, McCarthy’s relief could not be hidden, as the relief of finally tasting a top-flight victory was written all over his face.
Read the majority of McCarthy’s post-match comments from that season and a pattern starts to emerge: he would not dig out his players in public and he would not seek excuses. It was abundantly clear that he commanded the utmost respect from the squad, and that he in turn had a steadfast belief in them.
When McCarthy finally left the club in February 2006, handing the reins over to Kevin Ball, he gave a Harry Redknapp-style interview from his car window as he departed the training ground for the final time.
Despite the season taking a toll on everyone, and the obvious disappointment he felt at leaving, there was not a trace of bitterness or rancour in his voice. Instead, he simply conceded that it had been a tough time, but declared that it had been a pleasure to manage the club, and that he had enjoyed every minute of his time in the hot-seat.
Compared to the similarly gruff but painfully uninspiring Scot who would arrive as manager ten years after his departure, McCarthy’s conduct during 2005/2006 should be held up as an example of how a manager can handle himself in adverse circumstances.
Bill Shankly once spoke about the importance of honesty in football, and there is little doubt that honesty, often of the brutal kind, was a hallmark of McCarthy’s approach. Much like Peter Reid, he understood the Sunderland fans, and made no attempts to take us for fools, something David Moyes did with disgraceful regularity.
I’ve always found it to be a curious quirk of fate that the two protagonists in the infamous ‘Saipan incident’, that tore apart Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign, played a significant role in the transformation of Sunderland during 2006.
From McCarthy to Roy Keane, with Niall Quinn as the intermediary, the turnaround was substantial, even if we didn’t realise what was ahead at the time. And it’s also worth remembering that several of McCarthy’s signings would play a major role under Keane, so his influence lingered for some time afterwards.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for McCarthy, and it has not diminished with the passage of time.
During that dismal season, as many managers battling relegation have done since, he could’ve easily shirked responsibility and felt sorry for himself. Instead, he opted for resilience and stoicism. That in itself was something extremely uplifting.