When you look back at the careers of footballers, especially in the modern era, it always seems to begin on a night like this one.
A midweek, League Cup tie, usually at home and quite often in front of a much lower than usual crowd who avoid the elements for the comfort of their armchair, or the pub for the night. Years later though, many of those people will say they were there to witness it.
Jordan Henderson’s full debut, after coming on as sub in a 5-0 defeat at Chelsea days before, for instance, came at the Stadium of Light against Blackburn in the League Cup, and Jordan Pickford’s came at Arsenal in a FA Cup third-round tie - both ended in defeat.
Grant Leadbitter’s debut, on this day 18 years ago, wasn’t quite as glamourous as those, however.
The club were still rocked by a disastrous season that not only saw the end of the largely successful Peter Reid era come to a fairly inevitable end, but witnessed the beginning and the end of Howard Wilkinson’s reign as manager, as it didn’t really have a middle.
It fell to Mick McCarthy to close out the season and try to rebuild the club with a squad that contained far too many on Premier League wages that no other club seemed to want to take off our hands.
We kicked off the season safe in the knowledge that if we began with three straight defeats in the First Division, we would break a 104-year record for a run of defeats. So the pressure was on when we went down at the City Ground on the opening day, documented in more detail on Roker Report here, followed by a home defeat against Millwall.
Victory over Preston North End a week later sparked a four-game winning streak, which having waited since December the previous year for a league win, felt like a minor miracle.
A 3-1 defeat at Stoke City was then followed by a draw at George Burley’s Derby County.
That saw us sitting 9th in the First Division ahead of our Carling Cup second round tie at home to Third Division Huddersfield Town, after we had beaten Mansfield Town, along with Liam Lawrence, who were also from the bottom tier of the Football League in the round one.
Peter Jackson’s Huddersfield Town side hadn’t got off to the best of starts down in Division Three as they sat 17th after 9 games. They arrived at the Stadium of Light with a young side that included the likes of 20-year-old midfielder Lee Fowler, who had just signed from Coventry City, 21-year-old Andy Holdsworth who came through the ranks to have a good career with the Terriers and a 20-year-old Jon Stead, who had just made his debut for the club the previous year.
For Sunderland, Mick McCarthy shuffled his pack and in-goal gave a start to Michael Ingham, of which this was one of his three games as part of the starting XI. It was a similar situation for 20-year-old Craig James at left-back who only started two games for the club. Ben Clark had been given primarily a place on the bench, but had been given minutes in the league and was given a start for the League Cup tie.
Other than Ingham, James and Clark, it was a side full of experience - even the bench included Mart Poom, Phil Babb, Darren Williams and Marcus Stewart, who were joined by a local lad in the form of 17-year-old Grant Leadbitter. The midfielder was highly rated by the club and had up to that point represented England up to U19 level.
Only 13,516 were in attendance to witness Tony Carss put Huddersfield into the lead only 69 seconds into the game with a 25-yard free kick that left Ingham rooted to the spot. Jon Stead then did what he could never quite manage on a regular basis at the Stadium of Light in a Sunderland shirt, and scored a goal. Quite a good one actually, curling it from the edge of the box into the far corner after 20 minutes.
Kevin Kyle then pulled one back with a typical ‘Kevin Kyle’ goal - a header at the near post from a corner five minutes later, but then just before the hour, Andy Holdsworth restored the Terriers two-goal lead with a close-range finish.
To add insult to injury for Sunderland, Ben Clark attempted to stop the initial header before it fell to Holdsworth by saving it with his hands, but his goalkeeping wasn’t quite up to scratch and it went in anyway, meaning the goal stood and he was still sent off.
A quarter of an hour later, Grant Leadbitter replaced John Oster in an attempt to claw our way back into the game, but with three minutes left on the clock, Andy Booth took advantage of Darren Williams clearance being his straight at him to take a touch and finish to make it 4-1. Kevin Kyle pulled one back on the stroke of full-time, but it was a bit of an upset at the time.
Thankfully, Grant Leadbitter had much better days in a Sunderland shirt and made 210 appearances in two spells that all began on this day 18 years ago.
Sunderland 2-4 Huddersfield Town
(Kyle 25’, 90’ - Carss 2’, Stead 20’, Holdsworth 54’, Booth 87’)
Sunderland: Ingham, Clark, Bjorklund (Williams), McCartney, James, Oster (Leadbitter), Whitley, Thornton, Butler, Kyle, Proctor (Stewart) Substitutes not used: Poom, Babb
Huddersfield Town: Gray, Schofield, Scott, Fowler, Yates, Mirfin, Worthington, Holdsworth, Carss, Booth (Brown), Stead Substitutes not used: Senior, Booty, Mattis, Newby