When Mick McCarthy was appointed as the new manager of Sunderland with nine games remaining of the 2002-03 season he would have been under no illusion about the task in hand.
His fears would have been confirmed as we ended the season by not only losing all nine Premier League games, but by the fact we finished the season with a total of 19 points – a mere 25 points from safety.
It was a season that confirmed the end of the Peter Reid era, and saw the last performances in red and white from the likes of Kevin Phillips, Niall Quinn, Jody Craddock, Thomas Sorensen, Gavin McCann, Stefan Schwarz, Emerson Thome and Claudio Reyna – which highlighted the scale of the job Mick McCarthy had taken on at the Stadium of Light.
The club was also in a financial mess after relegation, which meant that although the nucleus of a good Championship squad remained, there would be no funds in the pot for recruitment.
Despite transfer funds being scarce, the ex-Republic of Ireland manager went to work and brought in Gary Breen, Jeff Whitley, Colin Healy and Tommy Smith on free transfers, which were supplemented later by Stewart Downing, Alan Quinn, Kevin Cooper and Colin Cooper signing on loan at various points through the season.
Against the backdrop of losing 18 out of the final 19 Premier League games of the previous season, it appeared that our horrific run was spilling into our new season in the Championship. We lost on the opening day of the season in front of the Sky cameras at Nottingham Forest, followed by losing our first home game of the season against Mark McGhee’s Millwall.
To everyone’s relief, we won the next four league games, and by the time 2003 turned into 2004, Sunderland were sitting fourth in the Championship as Hartlepool United were visiting the Stadium of Light for our FA Cup third round tie.
In front of what would end up being our biggest home crowd of the season (including the play-off semi-final) of 40,816, Sunderland negotiated the potential banana skin through a Julio Arca goal setting up a fourth round tie away to fellow promotion rivals Ipswich Town.
Arca was again on the scoresheet at Portman Road, scoring Sunderland’s second after Tommy Smith had opened the scoring, which meant – after a Martijn Reuser consolation – that Mick McCarthy’s side progressed to round five.
Next up was a tricky tie against Birmingham City who were managed by Steve Bruce and were riding high in 9th in the Premier League as they paid a visit north to the Stadium of Light, incidentally on the night we farewelled our last FA Cup winning manager, Bob Stokoe, who’d passed away earlier in the month.
Things appeared to be going to plan for the side in the top tier as they took the lead just before the half hour through Mikael Forssell, but a Kevin Kyle equaliser five minutes before half-time would turn out to force a replay.
Eleven days later, we made the trip to the West Midlands for the replay on the back of a 4-0 defeat to Cardiff City in between the two games. After a nervy, goalless 90 minutes the game went into extra time.
Ten minutes into the first period, a clipped ball from the left found Kevin Kyle in behind the Birmingham backline. After a great first touch with his chest, the Scottish international fired in a volley that forced a good save from Maik Taylor. The Northern Irish international keeper could only tip it onto the bar, however, and Tommy Smith followed up to give Sunderland the lead.
Then with five minutes left of the second period, Smith attacked the Blues back four with a mazy run and went completely free on goal to slot comfortably past Taylor to send Sunderland through to the quarter final of the FA Cup for the first time since 1992.
Our run eventually led to a semi-final appearance against Millwall, who narrowly beat us at Old Trafford, while in the league a third placed finish was testament to the rebuilding job carried out by Mick McCarthy.
And, while we were unsuccessful in the play offs that time around, McCarthy’s team surged to the title and promotion back to the Premier League the following year.
Birmingham City: Taylor, Tebily (John), Purse, Cunningham, Kenna, Johnson, Savage, Dunn (Clemence - (Carter)), Hughes, Forsell, Morrison Substitutes not used: Bennett, Cisse
Sunderland: Poom, Wright, Breen, Babb, McCartney, Oster (Thornton), Whitley, Thirlwell, Arca, Kyle, Stewart (Smith) Substitutes not used: Ingham, Williams, Cooper