Relegation from the top-flight in 2003 with a then-record low points total had left the club on its knees. The demise had been as brutal as it was unexpected; just two years earlier the side had been challenging for European qualification, but with scores of backroom staff now losing their jobs and with the squad ripped apart by an enforced fire sale supporters were left reeling.
During the 2003-04 season however, Mick McCarthy managed to stop the rot. The side admittedly fell at the semi-final stage of both the FA Cup and the Play-Offs, but they had started to repair the damage of the previous year and were becoming able to win football matches again. Although working with a restricted budget, McCarthy had been able to reinvigorate his squad and in the build up to 2004-05 added to it further having scoured the market for rough diamonds.
Scouting young, hungry players to add to the ranks gave Sunderland an edge. Three new arrivals all made their debuts for the club on the opening the season at Coventry’s Highfield Road 17 years ago today, and whilst Stephen Elliott, Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence all tasted defeat following their bows their contributions in the coming months would prove vital.
For a long time it looked like Sunderland would get a point against Reidy’s charges. Mart Poom was the busier of the goalkeepers in a fairly scrappy game, but he had looked well set until a late Patrick Suffo penalty, awarded following a hand ball from eventual Player of the Season George McCartney, and an even later Eddie Johnson finish edged it and gave Coventry a 2-0 win.
The Lads did not have to wait long for their first points of the campaign. Three days later Elliott wrapped up a 3-1 win over Crewe Alexandra with a cool finish and over the next few weeks the team started gathering momentum. With a mixture of experience and verve, McCarthy had got the blend right and in the return fixture at the Stadium of Light later in the season the side went top of the table following a winning goal from Chris Brown, another youngster to have been given a chance during the season.
Sunderland stayed on top for the rest of the season, winning the Championship title by seven points and earning promotion as a result. Coventry, meanwhile, finished just two points clear of relegation with Reid having left in January after being unable to capitalise on that opening day success.
The story of what happened in 2004-05 shows that even if Lee Johnson’s team lose against Wigan Athletic at the Stadium of Light in this afternoon’s curtain raiser, it might not define the 2021-22 season.