There are pivotal points in any promotion push, and back in 2005 it was a Saturday-Tuesday away game double at mid-table QPR followed by promotion rivals Wigan Athletic. We’d reached the top of the league the week before, thanks to a narrow victory over Coventry which was our sixth win on the bounce, but the real test was still to come.
Heading to QPR, we were in confident mood, and it just felt like we were on to something. We had a swagger, a confidence and a steeliness that was setting us in good stead.
Mick McCarthy, who had just claimed the manager of the month award for March, had managed to get something that resembled a bunch of misfits organised into an effective team.
Thomas Myhre in goal was a superb keeper, often overlooked when talking about the best Sunderland keepers of recent times, while Marcus Stewart and Stephen Elliott had formed a good partnership up front thanks to the enforced absence of Kevin Kyle through injury.
In midfield, the often maligned Jeff Whitley performed a very important and consistent role, allowing the effective Carl Robinson to play a more box-to-box role. It was a functional side, given some star quality by Julio Arca.
The Argentine played probably his best football from the club under McCarthy, sometimes from left back, sometimes from left midfield, and as a unit the team was probably outperforming the sum of its parts.
Before the match, we headed in to Walkabout at Shepherds Bush – the mood was one of anticipation, but confidence. The Peter Kay and Tony Christie version of ‘Is the the way to Amarillo?’, was topping the charts, and our version, ‘Is this the way to Aston Villa?’ was sung with gusto.
Sunderland had a pretty consistent line up during this season, but George McCartney missed out on this game – Arca dropping to left back and Andy Welsh coming into the left of midfield. Liam Lawrence also missed out with Dean Whitehead coming back into the starting line up.
Sunderland: Myhre, Wright, Breen, Caldwell, Arca, Whitehead, Whitley, Robinson, Welsh, Elliott, Stewart. Subs: Alnwick, Collins, Thornton, Bridges, Brown.
QPR: Royce, Bignot, Davies, Shittu, Santos, Padula, Rowlands, Bircham, Cook, Furlong, Gallen. Subs: Rossi, Miller, Baidoo, Sturridge, Cureton.
Despite Sunderland topping the table, it was QPR who had by far the best of the first half. A dominant Rangers took control of the game and deservedly took the lead on 22 – Danny Shittu heading home unmarked from a corner.
While Carl Robinson could have bagged an equaliser thanks to a rare foray forward, it was QPR who came closest to adding to the scoreline – Paul Furlong, usually the scourge of Sunderland, shooting straight at a grateful Myhre.
The absence of Lawrence meant we were lacking attacking threat, and a first-half injury to Whitley forced McCarthy’s hand.
Striker Chris Brown came on for the former Man City defensive midfielder, Whitehead came into centre midfield and Elliott dropped back to the right wing – providing more of an attacking threat, which paid dividends in the second half.
It was a typical ‘game of two halves’, and a dominant Sunderland half began with Andy Welsh netting an equaliser in the first minute of the second period.
Sunderland had regained the swagger of champions, and just after the hour mark, Brown scored after good play between Stewart and Whitehead.
2-1 up, and the atmosphere in the away end was bouncing. It was boosted even further when news on the radio (it was still pre-iPhone!) filtered through that not only were Newcastle getting beat by Aston Villa, but Dyer and Bowyer had been sent off for scrapping with each other.
Julio added a decider, tapping home after Royce parried Stewart’s shot, and that was done.
Is this the way to Aston Villa, Man United, scum and the Boro. Wave goodbye to Coca Cola...
The win over QPR left us with six games left to play, and set us up perfectly for Tuesday’s trip to Wigan, who were on our coat tails in the promotion race. That’s another game that’ll live long in the memory for anyone who was there; we took over the JJB and won thanks to an early Stewart goal.
It set us up nicely for the final push, and despite a defeat at home to Reading, primarily thanks to a poor performance by sub keeper Michael Ingham, we stormed to the title in style.
Promotion races always have a couple of key fixtures that ultimately decide the fate of the season. Sixteen years ago it was the QPR/Wigan fixtures – today we play the first of two fixtures that I believe will go a long way to deciding the season’s fate.
HA’WAY, HA’WAY, HA’WAY!!!!!