When you think of our ‘second division’ championship title-winning seasons, which ones spring to mind?
Peter Reid’s 105 pointers, definitely. Keane’s brilliant season, too. Reid’s first full season certainly. And for a generation of a different vintage, maybe Stokoe’s 75-76 team.
The 2004-05 season is one that often seems – if not forgotten about – underrated.
Maybe it’s because it was a team of mostly transient players, lads who, in the main, only spent a season or two at the club, and – Arca aside – we didn’t have a great deal of affinity with.
Maybe it’s because of what happened the following season.
Maybe it’s just me.
But looking back on it, 2004-05 was a tremendous season, and a superb achievement. It was a squad that – player for player – should maybe have been hovering around the play-offs. But thanks to some brilliant management by Mick McCarthy, we got promoted on 94 points, seven clear of second and nine ahead of third.
Yes, those 94 points meant we were 11 away from Reid’s 105, but we were also six ahead of Keane’s Sunderland, and 11 ahead of Reid’s 95-96 title.
The season had started off a bit slowly, but coming in and out of Christmas we’d built something resembling a head of steam, 12 wins and three draws from 18 league games, as well as beating Premier League Crystal Palace, who’d beaten us in the play-offs the year before, in the FA Cup, and were sitting comfortably in third position.
Sixteen years ago today, we took on 16th placed Watford at the Stadium of Light, in front of 24,948 supporters; something of a low crowd all things considered, but for whatever reason McCarthy’s team rarely attracted crowds of over 30,000.
Sunderland lined up:
Myhre, Wright, Caldwell, Breen, McCarthy, Whitehead, Robinson, Whitley, Arca, Elliott, Stewart. Subs: Alnwick, Collins, Thornton, Welsh, Brown.
Sunderland started the game brightly, and Stewart opened the scoring after 18 minutes, nodding home strike partner Elliott’s cross after the Irishman beat the offside trap in the inside right channel.
Stewart had very little pace but was smart and nippy with his movement, and had timed his run to perfection.
And the former Ipswich man added a second 15 minutes later, sending keeper Paul Jones, on loan from Wolves, the wrong way after George McCartney had been clipped running into the box after playing a lovely one-two with Julio.
Stewart completed his hattrick early in the second half.
A lofted clearance from McCartney caught out the Watford defence. Keeper Jones, who while capable of making great saves was also prone to a regular mistake, misjudged the flight of the ball, parrying the ball over his head.
Stewart anticipated, sliding in to complete his treble.
Stewart was subbed midway through the second half, as was customary, and he was replaced by Chris Brown. Brown added the fourth himself shortly after, tapping in from close range following a Whitehead corner.
The shine was taken off what should have been a comprehensive win, by a Bruce Dyer double – the second of which came in the 90th minute, so not enough to cause that surge of panic that Sunderland like to do.
After the game, Mick McCarthy said:
The difference now from the last six to eight weeks is that he’s putting the ball in the net.
Stewy was much maligned at times so it was lovely to be able to take him off and see him get a standing ovation, which he has deserved.
I think he and Stephen Elliott are our best partnership. Stephen was excellent - how he’s not scored I don’t know.
And, Watford’s manager Ray Lewington’s post-game quotes showed just how highly McCarthy’s team was thought of.
We never got going, the first three goals were all down to us. If you give goals away like we did it’s hard to get back.
You come to these big clubs and you know you’re going to get beaten - we know it’s going to be tough in games like these.
It wasn’t a very good display. We’ve got to get more discipline and consistency in our play.
We lost our next game, 2-1 to Brighton, but after that went on to win eight on the bounce – which took us to the top of the league, which is where we stayed.
When you reflect on it, it was a cracking season.