Promotions are rarely won in an altogether straightforward fashion, and the final throes of Sunderland’s 2004-05 campaign to regain a place in the Premier League had been thrown a curveball by Thomas Myhre’s injury in a rare home defeat, to Reading, in the middle of April.
With 24-year-old reserve Michael Ingham seemingly struggling with the pressure of playing such a key position at such a crucial stage of the season, McCarthy decided it was too much of a risk to persist with the Northern Irishman.
With Estonian Mart Poom also out injured, McCarthy threw his chips in the direction of Ben Alnwick, a keeper who’d turned 18 only four months earlier.
To be fair to Alnwick and McCarthy, it wasn’t as if the keeper was plucked from obscurity.
Very highly rated – he’d played for England at under 16, 17 and 18 level by this point – he’d made the position of third-choice keeper his own, and had been on the bench for the majority of the season after Poom’s early-season injury.
All things being equal, he would have made his debut a couple of weeks earlier. After 29 games as an unused sub, he’d been given compassionate leave after a bereavement and consequently missed the Reading fixture, during which Ingham had been presented with his chance.
Incidentally, Ingham had picked up an injury only a couple of days after the Reading game.
In a storyline more suited to a hard-to-believe football drama, he was traveling to play a reserve game at Bolton the Monday after the Reading game (why?!). Fast asleep, the coach braked and Ingham cricked his neck.
He played the opening 45 minutes but was in so much discomfort he had to be replaced at halftime by... Ben Alnwick. Who fortunately made it through the game unscathed.
Quite why it was deemed a good idea to send the only two fit keepers to play reserve team football only days before a critical game away at promotion rivals Ipswich is anyone’s guess.
Anyway, as Sunderland took on Leicester 16 years ago today, we knew a win would seal promotion if other results went our way. And, after the disappointment of our play off semi defeat against Crystal Palace the season before, everyone was keen to have the deal signed, sealed and delivered before the opportunity for any more last-gasp heartache presented itself.
34, 815 turned up at the Stadium of Light to see Alnwick start in goal, and Dean Whitehead once again line up in the centre of midfield.
It had only been at the tail end of the season that Whitehead, signed from Oxford the previous summer, had managed to force his way into the team in his preferred position – after a game at QPR, McCarthy lost faith in the Whitley/Robinson midfield pairing.
Sunderland lined up: Alnwick, Wright, Breen, Caldwell, Arca, Lawrence, Whitehead, Robinson, Welsh, Stewart, Brown. Subs: Ingham, Collins, Thornton, Elliott, Deane.
With Dion Dublin at centre half and future Sunderland striker David Connolly up front, Leicester lined up like this.
Walker, Kenton, Dublin, McCarthy, Maybury, Hughes, Gudjonsson, Nalis, Tiatto, Connolly, De Vries. Subs: Hirschfeld, Stearman, Williams, Gillespie, Moore.
As far as goalkeepers’ debuts go, Alnwick’s got off to the worst possible start, as left back Alan Maybury netted after only five minutes inside Alnwick’s far post. There was nothing the keeper could have done about it, however it was the last thing we needed.
In a great show of mental strength, however, and roared on by an encouraging crowd, Alnwick puffed out his chest and pulled off a couple of great saves to keep the Foxes at bay, first from Connolly, then from De Vries.
At the other end, we came close to equalising from Wright and Stewart, who had a goal disallowed, before the former Ipswich striker did what he’d been doing all season, and netted.
This season was a defining one for Stewart at Sunderland. The team had been built around getting it into his feet, and boy did he respond.
He made a trademark run on the inside of the full back, and played in by strike partner Brown slotted the ball beyond former Spurs keeper Walker.
1-1, game on.
The second half was more cautious than the first, as the lads looked to get a winner – which came on the hour mark thanks to Steve Caldwell. The former Newcastle defender was a rock that season, and it was deserving he should get the goal that ultimately sealed our fate.
In fact, it was another goal a hundred-odd miles south that actually sealed our fate. A Matthew Spring equaliser for Leeds at Elland Road against Ipswich meant that the Tractor Boys couldn’t catch us, and only one more automatic spot was up for grabs.
Joy, redemption, call it what you want. McCarthy had done a stupendously good job getting the team up, and how we enjoyed it.
Sunderland went on to claim the title, with Alnwick starring – particularly away at West Ham, where he was in tremendous form.
Of course, as well all know, that optimism quickly turned with our horrendously poor performance during the 2005-06 season.
Ben Alnwick started the following season on the bench. But, while he’d previously had Mart Poom and Tommy Mhyre in front of him, he now had the hapless Kelvin Davis to compete with. Why anyone thought it was a good decision to let Mhyre go, and send Poom to Arsenal on loan, is anyone’s guess. Probably the person who let Ingham and Alnwick play in that reserve game.
Anyway, after a bunch of displays that terrified the fans and our own defenders alike, Davis was dropped for an away game at Arsenal, and Alnwick was given a chance. He did well and retained his place for a few games, but McCarthy decided it wasn’t the situation to expose an 18-year-old keeper to in the long term. Davis was back in the side, and we were relegated.
The following season, Alnwick – tagged the ‘new Jimmy Montgomery’ by Niall Quinn, started the season in goal, but upon Roy Keane’s arrival was displaced by Darren Ward and promptly sold to Spurs. We got money plus Marton Fulop. It’s fair to say we got the best of that deal.
Alnwick never made a league appearance for Spurs, and ended up playing for a number of clubs in the Championship and League One.
He had a good career, but didn’t hit anywhere near the heights we thought he might on that glorious April afternoon.