Sunderland’s disastrous 2005-2006 Premier League campaign will probably go down in the annals of history as the most embarrassing top-flight season we’ve ever had or will ever have.
Fans, players and management alike watched on week-by-week as the club sank helplessly to the bottom of the table, with a squad of players that simply wasn’t good enough to compete with the very best teams in the land.
Mick McCarthy had performed a minor miracle in winning the Championship on a tight budget the year before, but with an opportunity to cement ourselves back in the top division, our brilliant, likeable manager was not backed by the club’s then-owner Bob Murray, before being sacked part-way through the season having been dealt an awful hand by the powers that be.
Asking McCarthy to stabalise the club that season, with the budget and squad that he had, was akin to asking a gardener to trim his privets with a teaspoon.
The fanbase had never felt so passionate in wanting Murray to leave, and protests took place before, during and after a game with Blackburn in March which gave the club’s long-standing owner a clear message - you need to go, and soon.
This prompted former player Niall Quinn to assemble a consortium of Irish businessmen - known as Drumaville - in order to purchase the football club and all its assets from Murray, and in the weeks that followed, fans remained optimistic that brighter times were potentially on the horizon.
As Quinn’s group thrashed out talks with Murray, Sunderland’s season continued to witter away. Already relegated, the side suffered an embarrassing 4-1 home loss to Newcastle United in mid-April, and hadn’t won a game since January.
Kevin Ball took over as caretaker manager on the back of McCarthy’s departure - a thankless task given the state that the team was in at that point.
Ball was tasked with motivating a bunch of players who had spent the season being mocked by the entire nation as a rabble of hopeless losers. To his credit, you could say he managed to do just that - albeit, it wasn’t necessarily reflected in the results.
Our final home game of the season came against a Fulham side managed by future Sunderland boss Chris Coleman. They were pushing for a spot in the top ten, and came into the occasion having already led by a goal in this fixture some weeks prior - the original match was played almost a month earlier, but was abandoned mid-way through the first half due to a snowstorm, with Fulham 1-0 up thanks to an early strike from Brian McBride.
Interestingly, the rearranged game took place on a Thursday night - how often do you play a league game on a Thursday? - due to the lack of space in the schedule, and with 28,226 hardy souls in attendance, Ball and his players did their best to show the fans that the next season might well be a better one under new ownership.
The Lads started brightly and, as Chris Coleman said in his post-match comments, it felt as though Sunderland just wanted it more than their opponents on the day.
After an early spell of pressure, Andy Welsh - who had been out on loan at Leicester, but brought back into the fold by Ball - whipped a great cross in from the left which fell to Liverpool loanee Anthony Le Tallec, and he stooped low to head home Sunderland’s 11th home goal of the season, and his fifth in total.
Sunderland continued to pressure Fulham, who seemed disinterested and low on motivation, which was strange given they could still finish inside the top ten.
We kept it up after half time and, much to the disbelief of the home fans in attendance, soon our lead was doubled - Nyron Nosworthy’s long range shot was fumbled by the hands of Mark Crossley, and Chris Brown reacted fastest to follow up and stab the ball home.
Fulham managed to get one back with fourteen minutes left to play, giving Sunderland some anxiety that we might chuck the well-earned lead, but they held firm and the fans were sent home happy - a rare occasion, given it was our first home win of the season in the league, and only our third in total.
“The most important thing is that we’ve sent the fans home happy,” said the caretaker manager Kevin Ball. “It has been very difficult for them this year and that’s why I told the players it was a must-win game.”