Another season, another opening day defeat, but one that once we cover the mess the club was in on this day 18 years ago is a story that can provide hope after any opening day defeat.
It was the 9th August 2003 when we took on Paul Hart’s Nottingham Forest side and to give you an idea of the tanker that Mick McCarthy was tryin to turn around, we hadn’t avoided defeat in a League fixture since the previous January where a goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers provided the last of our 19 Premier League points during 2002/03.
For our last victory we have to look back further than the calendar year and go back to 15th December 2002 where a late Michael Proctor goal five minutes from time gave us a 2-1 victory over Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool.
Mick McCarthy replaced Howard Wilkinson with nine games to go, but that point all was lost and not even playing for pride was enough to claim more points on the board. A tired squad, of whom many were members of the Peter Reid squads that finished 7th in successive seasons in the Premier League, but most realised that their time was now up on Wearside.
In the summer, it was all about shipping players out of the squad rather than bringing new ones in. McCarthy was left in a position where he had to see what remained of his squad, where excessive wages were an issue in terms of sealing deals with other clubs but also being able to pay the players still left on the books.
A long list of players departed including Stefan Schwarz, Emerson Thome, Thomas Sorensen, Gavin McCann and Jody Craddock to ease the financial burden on the club, but there were still big earners on the books when the opening day arrived.
Tore Andre Flo, Michael Gray, Kevin Kilbane and Kevin Phillips were all still on the books by the time the trip to Forest had arrived with Phillips on the verge of a deal to Southampton that highlighted the financial problems at the club.
Phillips was paid a ‘signing-off’ fee of around £1 million to mitigate the drop in wages to £16,000 a week from £33,000 in order to fit with Southampton’s wage structure. The Saints increased the transfer fee by a quarter of a million to £3.25 million to rescue the deal, which meant after Watford’s cut, Sunderland only received around £2 million for the striker.
The week leading up to the game the squad agreed to take a wage deferral in order to help the club who were heavily in debt, but when the new club captain Jason McAteer was questioned on the deferral he suggested it might not have been as unanimous as it first appeared.
Well you’ll have to ask our PFA rep about that but the trouble is we haven’t got one at the moment.
It wasn’t surprising then that there were no debutants in the Mick McCarthy’s XI that he sent out to face Nottingham Forest in front of the Sky cameras who were sadistically sent to record how far we’d fallen, whilst handing us a check for £10,000 for the privilege rather than the £600,000 for a game the previous season would have added to the coffers.
Although, the possibility of a debutant was only ruled out the morning of the game when news broke that Sean Thornton and new signing Jeff Whitley were dropped from the squad for oversleeping at the team hotel on the morning of the game.
Despite everything off the pitch, the game finally kicked off and Sunderland started brightly with Proctor missing early chances with 38-year-old Des Walker looking vulnerable in the early stages.
Then Marlon Harewood put Forest a goal up against the run of play on 19 minutes, taking the ball around Mart Poom to finish from a tight angle after a typically accurate through-ball from Andy Reid.
Reid was again the provider a few minutes before half-time when his corner found an unmarked Louis-Jean at the near post who essentially killed off the game before half-time as Sunderland returned to action after the break aiming to many long balls up to Kevin Kyle.
It left us needing to avoid defeat in our next two First Division fixtures or we’d equal the worst sequence of defeats in the English game, which had been held by Darwen for 104 years - something that Mick McCarthy sounded overjoyed to be questioned on after the final whistle.
So what if we get the record? We might go on to win our next 10 games. We need to get back to the sort of team that got Sunderland into the Premiership in the first place. They could play but they could also kick, bollock and bite and be scruffy and horrible. They were a team people could be proud of.
And although we lost our next game against Millwall and didn’t win the ten after that, he did turn us into a team to be proud of. Although it didn’t end great. But when Mick McCarthy talks about turning a tanker around, it’s worth a listen.
Nottingham Forest 2-0 Sunderland
(Harewood 19’, Louis-Jean 41’)
Nottingham Forest: Ward, Louis-Jean, Thompson, Walker, Oyen, Jess, Stewart, Gunnarsson (Sonner), Reid, Johnson, Harewood Substitutes not used: Roche, Morgan, Williams, Westcarr
Sunderland: Poom, Wright, Babb, Bjorklund, McCartney, Oster (Butler), McAteer, Thirlwell, Kilbane, Proctor (Stewart), Kyle. Substitutes not used: Ingham, Clark, Williams