We were 20th in the league. Comfortably 20th. In fact, we’d been in 20th place since October, when Matt Taylor chipped Kelvin Davis from Row C of the North Stand, and things got ugly.
In fact, since our surprise victory at Boro in September, the Invisible Man and Julio getting the goals, and Nyron playing that back pass, we’d won one, drawn two and lost 14 of the next 17 league games.
After setting a record low of 19 points a few seasons earlier, we were doing our very best to outdo ourselves. And succeeding with aplomb.
Heading to Manchester City, we retained mathematical hope, but little more.
Kevin Kyle had recently returned to the side, and all hats were being hung on the big Scotsman. He’d been in fine form during the 2003-04 play off season, but had missed the vast majority of this and the previous campaign with a major hip injury.
After a sub appearance in a home defeat to Boro at the end of January, Kyle had been thrown back into the starting lineup. Desperation? You bet.
Against Stuart Pearce’s Manchester City in this Sunday fixture, Sunderland gave Rory Delap a full debut in the following line up:
Davis, Nosworthy, Breen, Collins, McCartney, Delap, Leadbitter, Whitehead, Arca, Elliott, Kyle. Subs: Murphy, Caldwell, Lawrence, Le Tallac, Stead.
A minted, but pre-serious-money, Man City looked like this:
James, Richards, Distin, Dunne, Jordan. Sinclair, Reyna, Musampa, Reira, Samaras, Vassell. Subs: Weaver, Jihai, Croft, Ireland. Wright-Phillips.
As it turned out, of course, it was one of those depressingly predictable games. You know the ones – last chance saloon, but everything seems to fall into disarray. Quickly.
So, what’s the most Sunderland thing to do in a must-win game? Concede two early goals. In fact, two in two minutes. So by the time the ten minute mark elapsed we were two down.
First, Danny Collins was caught in possession and Georgios Samaras fired past Davis (most people did that season). Then, moments later, he knocked in a cross from one-time Sunderland target Trevor Sinclair. 2-0. Game, set and match.
I often wonder what would have happened if we’d signed Sinclair when we were supposed to. Initially it was supposed to be as part of the deal that took Don Hutchison back to West Ham. Then it was supposed to be as a separate deal the following week. If he’d arrived when he was supposed to, things may have ended up a lot different.
There was no way this game was going to end up any different for McCarthy, however, despite Kyle tapping in a very early consolation.
As is custom in one of those games, we had a player ridiculously sent off. Skipper Gary Breen was already on a booking when he blocked a quick throw out from David James with his hands and was promptly dismissed.
As was McCarthy, the next day.
Hindsight tells us McCarthy was something of a victim of his own success. He’d worked relative miracles to get us up the season before, and the squad of players as a collective were nowhere near good enough to compete in the top flight.
McCarthy wasn’t given much in the way of transfer funds, but he didn’t help himself with what he had.
If signing Andy Gray to be your Premier League-leading striker bordered on the criminal, replacing Mart Poom and Thomas Myhre with Kelvin Davis was insanity.
Le Tallec had a heart the size of a pea, Tommy Miller couldn’t make any sort of impression. Nyron, who’d go on to be a ‘cult hero’ was woefully out of his depth.
In truth, and regardless of the circumstances, McCarthy’s record at Premier League level with us was appalling. We won only two of 37 games, and in 19 games at the Stadium of Light he didn’t manage a victory.
In the Championship, however, it was a different story. 51 wins in 92 games – a remarkable ratio, and one completely at odds with his performance at a higher level. Were the players not good enough? Was he not good enough? Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
In the end, such was the despair and despondency around the place, something had to change. Fans called for the head of Chairman Bob Murray... but it was McCarthy who paid the price.