On this day 21 years ago we kicked off our second successive season in the FA Carling Premiership, the one that usually invites the term “second season syndrome”.
On the back of an unbelievable 7th place finish in our first season in the top flight at the Stadium of Light, it wasn’t half a strange feeling in the summer of 2000.
Other than the additions of Stefan Schwarz, Steve Bould, Kevin Kilbane and Eric Roy, the previous season’s achievements had been reached by pretty much the same group of players that had seen us collect 105 points on the way to promotion, and after narrowly missing out on qualifying for the UEFA Cup, we were anticipating a busy summer.
Except, it didn’t really come by the time the visit of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side came to open the new season at the Stadium of Light. Peter Reid had signed six players by the 19th August, and two of them were goalkeepers - by far the most of the money had been spent on bringing Don Hutchison from Everton for £2.5m and Julio Arca from Argentinos Juniors for £3.5m.
Other lesser profile signatures came in the form of Tom Peeters (Mechelen, £250,000), Jon Kennedy (Worksop, £80,000), Jurgen Macho (FC Vienna, free transfer) and Stanislav Varga (Slovan Bratislava, £650,000). The only notable departure that summer was Allan Johnston on a free transfer to Glasgow Rangers, although he hadn’t featured the previous season due to Reid giving him the cold shoulder like only he could in contract disputes.
So taking into account the transfer dealings by the time the opening day rolled into view, there was a strange feeling of anticipation for another good season, combined with a nagging fear that we could potentially be in trouble - which was amplified by the manager telling anyone who would listen that survival was his main target once again.
And looking at our starting line-up ahead of kick-off that day, it was hard to see a repeat of the previous season. Darren Holloway and Paul Thirlwell had started 14 league games between them the previous year but were both deployed in a feisty midfield against an Arsenal side lacking the recently departed Emmanuel Petit.
Eric Roy was also deployed alongside Thirlwell and Holloway in a move seemingly designed to win the midfield battle first. The midfield quartet was complete with Kevin Kilbane on the left, leaving Nicky Summerbee, one of the best crossers of the ball I’ve seen for Sunderland out in the cold and not even qualifying for a place on the bench.
Don Hutchison was waiting to take up the role vacated by Summerbee but had to wait until the next fixture against Manchester City at Maine Road to make his Sunderland debut.
An almost full house at the Stadium of Light gathered to see Kevin Phillips presented with the golden boot for his exploits the year before, and more importantly how Reid’s side were facing up to a second crack at the Premiership.
The only player making his Sunderland debut in the starting XI was Stanislav Varga and all eyes were upon him to provide a clue as to our recruitment that summer.
And, in one of the best debuts the club has ever seen, he was immense.
Every tackle was cheered, every 40-yard ball to feet was applauded and every clearance off the line was celebrated like a goal at the other end. He was everywhere.
Despite this, it was Arsenal who looked the more likely to score first although in typical fashion playing against a Sunderland side managed by Peter Reid, they knew they were in a game. Ray Parlour came closest in the first half, getting his shot all wrong when the ball rebounded to him with an empty net presented in front of him.
Thomas Sorensen had picked up an injury in the first half which meant half time saw the introduction of Sunderland’s second debutant of the afternoon in the form of Jurgen Macho.
Early in the second half, the deadlock was broken and it came from ex-Arsenal striker Niall Quinn after a Michael Gray cross from the left beat David Seaman and fell on Quinn’s head six yards out to give us the lead.
The decibels were cranked up in the stand and in terms of effort it was nothing less than we deserved, especially the new man from Slovakia at the back.
Arsenal threatened late on through Bergkamp who had been introduced off the bench, as did new recruits Robert Pires and Lauren, along with Thierry Henry, but Macho did well to keep a clean sheet on his debut and to sum Wenger’s day up, Viera was shown the red card in the last minute for throwing an elbow in the direction of Darren Williams who was chomping at his heels.
Patrick Vieira has tried to play football today and some other players have not tried, and in the end, he is sent off because he had a bad reaction. First I’d send off the guy of Sunderland. I looked at him after the game and I didn’t see anything on his face.
Peter Reid however was visibly pleased to kick-off the new season with three points, especially against Arsenal who were aiming to challenge Manchester United in the title race once again.
Mr Wenger is a very intelligent man and he’s entitled to his opinion, but I think he should stick to his own players. I don’t comment on his players and he shouldn’t comment on my players and just get on with the game.
Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal
(Quinn 52’ - Viera sent off for Arsenal 90’)
Sunderland: Sorensen (Macho), Makin, Varga, Butler, Gray, Holloway, Roy (Williams), Thirlwell, Kilbane, Quinn (Reddy), Phillips Substitutes not used: Bould, Nunez
Arsenal: Seaman, Dixon (Lauren), Keown, Adams, Sylvinho, Parlour, Viera, Grimandi (Bergkamp), Ljungberg (Pires), Kanu, Henry Substitutes not used: Manninger, Luzhny