Well, what can you say about this day eight years ago? It was simply fantastic.
The season was petering out and it looked as if we were sleepwalking towards relegation. Martin O’Neill, the Charlie Hurley-loving boyhood Sunderland fan had arrived with such enthusiasm; and the early weeks and months had been great.
The later weeks and months, less so.
After spending a fortune during the previous summer, we’d entered the season full of hope.
THIS. IS. IT.
What? Bollocks. Another false dawn.
Playing cautious, unimaginative football, we were falling – not so much like a stone, more like a leaf. Gradually floating further and further towards the bottom without anyone really realising until it was too late.
All of that changed as the controversial Paolo Di Canio walked through the door, signing a two and a half year contract. The Italian, who’d been a superb player for Celtic, Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham, had appeared – from the outside at least – to do a great job at Swindon before things went, as the Italians might occasionally say, tits up.
So he arrived at Sunderland the day after O’Neill got his cards and was immediately faced with huge controversy over his political beliefs, which prompted the immediate resignation of vice chairman David Miliband. This is not the time to rake all of that up again, except to say that, as far as I am concerned, anything that divides our fan base in such a deep way simply isn’t worth doing.
Nevertheless, Ellis Short did and, after a narrow defeat to Chelsea, we faced Newcastle at St James Park. Under Alan Pardew, Newcastle had been flying – they’d finished fifth in the Premier League the season prior (bastad cockney mafia man) – but were stuttering a bit this term.
We hadn’t beaten them since they’d returned to the Premier League for the 2010-11 season – Steve Bruce famously couldn’t get over the line against them (despite having a great song lined up to play after we won... I still wonder what that was), while O’Neill’s side had only rescued a point in the home fixture earlier in the season thanks to a Demba Ba OG.
Seventeenth-placed Sunderland lined up at Sid James as follows:
Mignolet, Bardsley, O’Shea, Cueller, Rose, Johnson, Larsson, N’Diaye, McClean, Sessegnon, Graham. Subs: Westwood, Kilgallon, Mangane, Colback, Vaughan, Laidler, Mandron.
The fun started before the teams even kicked a ball, as Pardew came to shake hands with Sunderland’s new manager – Di Canio giving Pardew a gentle clip round the back of the head in response.
It wasn’t violent or anything like that, but it was a gesture that spoke a thousand words. It gave Di Canio an upper hand, and left Pardew perplexed.
On the field, it was end-to-end stuff. Newcastle had a lot of the ball and we had to withstand some spells of possession – however we had a couple of penalty shouts; the second, for a Taylor pull on Danny Graham, would likely have been given with VAR. Howard Webb, a decent referee until he started to believe his own press and see himself as the English Collina, said no.
We didn’t have to wait long though. Sessegnon picked the ball up 40 yards from goal, and the magical forward drove towards Tim Krul’s goal before slotting past him from 25 yards. It was a super strike – clinical without being overly spectacular – and a moment of magic Sess was capable of producing on a regular basis.
Di Canio leapt in the air; the Sunderland fans ecstatic.
In the second half Cisse thought he’d netted an equaliser from close range, only to be halted by the linesman’s flag. Again if VAR had been involved it would have been given – Cisse a yard onside. But... FTM. Pardew celebrated in Di Canio’s direction; the Italian, hands in pockets, just stared; aware of the lino’s flag.
We extended the lead with a quarter of an hour remaining, Johnson cutting inside to hammer the ball home left footed – Di Canio flew down the touchline on his knees.
Sunderland, wearing our red and white stripes, which I always like to see when we’re playing away at Newcastle, continued to pour forward as the Newcastle fans poured out of the ground – and with eight minutes left on the clock David Vaughan added a stunning third.
Sessegnon, who was pivotal in the performance, rolled a ball to the Welshman who struck it first time from outside the box, past sub keeper Eliot and into the back of the net to seal our biggest win on enemy territory since 1979.
As Sunderland fans celebrated inside the ground, the locals were revolting; Bud copped it, and the offender copped a 12 month prison spell.
Bud brushed it off. Neigh bother.
‘Why the long face, Bud?’
‘Because I’m a horse.’
For Di Canio, this was by far the highlight of his tenure at Sunderland, which turned out to be significantly more short lived than his two and a half year contract indicated it would be.
A narrow win over Everton the following weekend continued the momentum, but a 6-1 hammering at Villa brought us back down with a thud.
We had Cattermole’s ostracisation, the banning of tomato sauce, Bardsley’s trip to the casino, a raft of mental signings by Roberto De Fanti, Ji being played when not eligible, and fallings out left, right and centre.
And within six months, he was gone – never to manage again. Not yet, anyway.
It’s never dull is it?