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On This Day: 1 March 2003 - Wilko’s last game in charge at Sunderland!

On this day in 2003, Sunderland fans all over the world were celebrating the end of the ill-fated reign of Howard Wilkinson.

Howard Wilkinson New Manager Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

It was probably accepted that Peter Reid’s time was coming to an end a long time before it was made official, but bizarrely, it still came as a shock when the day arrived.

The final act was a 3-1 defeat at Highbury against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal as Sunderland sat one place and one point above the bottom three after nine games of the season played.

A miserable defeat against Newcastle in the previous month, combined with a series of disastrous signings, meant the writing was on the wall.

During the previous season, it was clear that Niall Quinn was winding down on his time as a professional footballer as he struggled with a back injury, and his proposed replacement, Lillian Laslandes, was an unmitigated £3.5 million disaster.

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Arsenal v Sunderland
Peter Reid during his final game in charge of Sunderland against Arsenal
Photo by Nigel French/EMPICS via Getty Images

The knock-on effect was the downturn in the form of Kevin Phillips, who scored 11 Premier League goals as Sunderland ended up surviving relegation by only four points, which meant at the top of Peter Reid’s shopping list for the summer of 2002 was at the very least one striker.

As Laslandes was shipped off to Bastia in his native France on-loan for the season, Sunderland once again began the season with Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn as the first choice strikers, with backup in the form of Kevin Kyle.

With the transfer window coming to a close and the pressure now increasing even further to bring in reinforcements after we’d scored one goal in the first three games, Peter Reid went into the market. On transfer deadline day, Tore Andre Flo joined from Glasgow Rangers for around £8 million and Marcus Stewart signed from Ipswich Town in a deal worth £3.5 million.

Sunderland New Signings - Marcus Stewart & Tore Andre Flo
Marcus Stewart and Tore Andre Flo were a last throw of the dice for Peter Reid
Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Just over a month later, Peter Reid was sacked as manager of Sunderland. Early favourites for the job were David O’Leary and George Graham.

I’m gutted for Peter, but I’m an out of work manager and I’m happy to talk to anyone.

David O’Leary

I’m keen to speak to any club whose ambition matches my own.

George Graham

The rumour mill was in full swing in the period between Reid’s final bow at Highbury and Sunderland’s next fixture at home to West Ham United two weeks later, but not many people predicted what happened next.

Right out of left-field, Bob Murray appointed Howard Wilkinson as the new Sunderland manager and threw in a curve ball for good measure, in the form of appointing the then Stoke City manager, Steve Cotterill, as his assistant manager.

Howard Wilkinson New Manager
Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill are appointed as Sunderland’s new manager and assistant manager in 2002
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Wilkinson, who was 58-years-old at the time, hadn’t managed at club level since being sacked from Leeds United in 1996, only four years after winning the League Championship. He was however, released from his contract at the FA by Adam Crozier, from his position as Technical Director at the Football Association.

I know Howard is hungry for a new challenge and very ambitious to achieve things at Sunderland.

Bob Murray

Twenty Premier League games later and Sunderland went down once again via a Louis Saha goal to Fulham at Loftus Road, having won only two games in the five months that Wilkinson had been in charge at the Stadium of Light.

It was five long, embarrassing months that saw Sunderland go down week after week without hardly a whimper. Stories of player unrest were almost a daily occurrence out of the Academy of Light and for some, it was more of a surprise that Wilkinson lasted that long.

Sunderland Manager Howard Wilkinson
Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill on the sidelines at Loftus Road in their final game before leaving Sunderland after another defeat
Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images

The defeat to Fulham would be all Bob Murray could stomach, and he ended what he recently described as one of his biggest mistakes as Chairman of the club, by terminating the contracts of Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill.

I am not surprised by anything that happens in football but still felt profound shock when it actually happened. I came to Sunderland with my eyes wide open and knew we would face difficulties but still thought that they could be dealt with in time.

Howard Wilkinson

Almost immediately, Mick McCarthy was installed as his replacement, but the season was a write-off with Sunderland sitting seven points from safety. It took McCarthy two years to get Sunderland back to the Premier League initially, but it would take the money of Drumaville to enter the fray to once again become established at the top level.

Fulham: Taylor, Finnan, Melville, Djetou, Harley, Malbranque (Stolcers), Legwinski, Inamoto (Ouaddou), Wome, Sava (Hammond), Saha Substitutes not used: Herrera, Leacock

Sunderland: Sorensen, Wright, Craddock, El Karkouri, Gray (McCartney), Piper (Proctor), McAteer, McCann, Kilbane, Phillips, Flo Substitutes not used: Macho, Babb, Arca

Attendance: 16,286

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