The initial impact Martin O’Neill had at Sunderland often goes under appreciated due to what followed.
Yes, he ultimately ran out of steam (personally I’d have liked him to be given more of a chance, although that’s probably more because I’d always had a romantic notion of him as our manager. I liked how he came across on the telly, and the fact he was a Sunderland fan as a lad), but the impact he had in the first few months was tremendous.
He’d inherited a bunch of players who’d had the energy and confidence sucked out of them by Steve Bruce – who’s still pulling the same stunts up the road a decade later – and energised and galvanised them.
In 16 games he’d led the lads to 29 points, including the famous Jiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii game against Manchester City on New Years Day.
The contrast with his predecessor, who’d taken 11 points from the first 13 games of the season, and 14 from the last 16 of the previous campaign, was stark.
The first sign that the initial O’Neill impact might be waning, however, was a the midweek defeat to David Moyes’ Everton in the FA Cup Quarter Final Replay at the Stadium Of Light.
After playing out a 1-1 draw at Goodison, we turned in a lacklustre performance, typified by David Vaughan’s comical own goal to seal the Toffeemen’s passage into the Semis.
Wembley would have to wait. Again.
Just four days later we headed to The Etihad to play a Manchester City side who were intent on disrupting the establishment.
The Premier League title was the domain of Manchester United, Chelsea, and occasionally Arsenal, but City, who had two top flight championships to their name, the last in 1968, were intent on forming a new footballing order.
Their first title, incidentally, came in 1937, the season after Sunderland had claimed our sixth.
A raft of star signings had been made by City and, coming into this game, they were second in Premier League table, three points behind Manchester United. Not only that, they had claimed all three points in their last 20 home league games.
Despite Sunderland’s resurgence, the odds were firmly stacked against us.
O’Neill made two changes to the side that succumbed to Everton, with Matt Kilgallon and Jack Colback coming into the team to replace January (banter) signings Wayne Bridge and Sortirios Kyrgiakos.
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, Turner, Kilgallon. Colback, Larsson, Cattermole, Gardner, McClean, Sessegnon, Bendtner. Subs: Westwood, Richardson, Kyrgiakos, Meyler, Vaughan, Ji, Campbell.
Roberto Mancini was without Sergio Aguero, and started with a forward line including Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko.
Manchester City: Hart, Richards, K. Toure, Kompany, Kolarov, Milner, De Jong, Y. Toure, Silva, Balotelli, Dzeko. Subs: Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Clichy, Pizarro, Barry, Johnson, Tevez.
City started on the offensive, and Mignolet made a neat save down to his right from a Kolarov free kick, but Sunderland soon took the game by the scruff of the proverbial neck., firing an early warning shot.
Bendtner, on loan from Arsenal, linked up well with Sessegnon, who played Larsson in down the right. The Swede played the ball back to Sess, who set Gardner up with a first time pass, and the former Villa midfielder shot narrowly wide.
If there was an FA Cup hangover, it seemed as if we’d taken the requisite amounts of Alka Seltzer and rehydrated well over the past few days.
It was an open, end-to-end game, and Mignolet saved well from Dzeko, but it we took the lead on the half hour. Composed play by the mercurial Sess fed Larsson, and Seb drove the ball from outside the box into the bottom right hand corner.
City piled the pressure in the hope of an immediate response. Mignolet made another save, Balotelli had a penalty appeal correctly turned down, before Dzeko won a penalty by diving into Craig Gardner’s thigh. I’ll argue ‘til the end of time that this type of incident should never be a penalty – the dive instigated the contact – but, as they say, you see them given. Balotelli stoked home confidently, and just before half time the scores were level.
If anyone thought that would herald the resumption of ‘business as usual’ they were mistaken. A quick free kick from Larsson put Sess in space to cross, which he did superbly for Bendtner, who headed us back in front immediately.
And ten minutes into the second half it was three. Superb work again from Sessegnon put Bendtner away on the right. Larsson was busting a gut to get into the box, The Lord Bendtner rolled the ball across and Seb netted in front of a jubilant away end.
Of course, City ended up as champions at the end of the season, and there are a number of reasons for that. One of which was their resilience. One of which wasn’t – on this day – their unity. Players argued between themselves, and with five minutes left the crowd of over 47,000 was severely depleted.
However, championships are built on games like this, and on ‘85 Balotelli netted from the edge of the box via a slight deflection off Turner’s back, and a minute later Kolarov struck from outside the box past an unsighted Mignolet.
We’d looked shaky since replacing Kilgallon with Kyrgiakos on 80 minutes, and now it was our turn to hang on, and we did – 3-3, and City far the happier of the two sides at the result.
City won the Premier League title on goal difference, and that point nine years ago would ultimately prove to be crucial.
As for Sunderland, we went into decline – in the final seven games we picked up only four points. Maybe it was one of those delayed hangovers. And it lasted a while. O’Neill won only another seven games as Sunderland manager – making his record in his final 38 games (the equivalent of a full season) W7, D9, L22 P30.
Unfortunately, on this day nine years ago, O’Neill’s spell as Sunderland had already reached its pinnacle, although at this moment of time you’d never have believed it.