Having taken over as Sunderland manager back in 1995, the club that Peter Reid inherited - one languishing in the first division in an old, tired stadium, with old, tired training facilities and an old, tired squad - was very different to the one he had towards the end of his tenure in 2002.
Not to say that the side he had was particularly youthful, but the club had made significant strides forward with Reid as manager, and his ability to sustain us in the top flight had undoubtedly aided Bob Murray’s plan off the field to bring Sunderland AFC into the 21st century.
That said, after two great seasons following our promotion in 1999, things didn’t go quite as smoothly for Sunderland under Reidy in the following season, staying up by just four points and finishing in 17th place in the Premier League.
But due to his fine work over the years, Reid was afforded another crack at getting us back on track in the 2002-03 campaign, and he recruited heavily from abroad as he tried to get his squad back into fighting shape.
The strong core of British and Irish players that had served Reid well over the years, with their close team bond both on and off the pitch, had been replaced with a gaggle of talent from foreign lands - in came Nicolas Medina (remember him?), Baki Mercimek (erm...), Lilian Laslandes (ffs), David Bellion (christ), Bernt Haas (burnt arse), Claudio Reyna (quite good actually) and Joachim Bjorklund (meh), all from abroad. In fact, the only deal we did with another English club was to sign Jason McAteer from Blackburn.
That, for whatever reason, clearly unsettled things behind the scenes, and whilst many of the players we recruited were very talented, the same personal bond between the players just wasn’t apparent in those early months of the season.
We were unfortunately battered the week before the Villa game at St James Park by the mags, with Craig Bellamy and Alan Shearer putting us to the sword and showing their quality, and with the side languishing just one place above the relegation zone, Reid knew he had to start turning things around quickly if he was going to stave off a relegation battle - and importantly, save his job.
Despite the defeat the week previous at the shit-tip, over 40,000 piled into the Stadium of Light hoping to see a response from their side - and the pressure was on.
Graham Taylor’s side included a very young Gareth Barry, England striker Darius Vassell and the experienced Dion Dublin and Steve Staunton, with future star Peter Crouch amongst the substitutes, and the visitors had more than enough about them to say they were capable of adding to Reidy’s problems by taking a win away from Wearside.
Sunderland named a slightly-changed eleven, with Jody Craddock returning to the fold for the first time following the tragic death of his baby son in the August, whilst there were also starts for Kevin Kilbane, David Bellion and Julio Arca, who all missed out at Newcastle.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Wright (Williams 32), Craddock, Babb, Kilbane, Piper, Reyna, McCann, Arca, Flo (Quinn 69), Bellion (Stewart 78). Subs Not Used: Thirlwell, Myhre. Booked: Reyna, McCann, Stewart.
Aston Villa: Enckelman, Mellberg, Staunton, Johnsen, Delaney (De la Cruz 77), Barry, Hendrie, Kinsella (Leonhardsen 86), Samuel, Dublin (Crouch 86), Vassell. Subs Not Used: Postma, Allback. Booked: Staunton, Dublin, Hendrie.
Attendance: 40,492. Referee: N Barry (N Lincolnshire).
Despite the fine score come the end of the game, the match didn’t begin in the most exciting of fashions - perhaps due to the morale-crushing defeat just a week prior.
Still, that didn’t deter David Bellion, who was eager to make a big impression in front of the home fans, having waited to get going since his summer move from Cannes.
His mazy run played in American midfielder Claudio Reyna, who lashed a shot at Peter Enckelman from 25-yards which he handled with ease.
Having gone into the break with the score at 0-0, Sunderland emerged after half time more relaxed, and the game was more entertaining as a result.
That said, the home fans were made to wait for the only goal of the game - a fine finish from the youngster Bellion, who latched onto a long ball over the top from Julio Arca to neatly dispatch his strike beyond Enckelman, handing Sunderland the lead.
He drank in the adulation of the crowd, running away to celebrate, front-flipping in front of the Sunderland fans before being mobbed by his teammates - it was a moment to savour.
The relief inside the stadium was palpable - everyone knew we needed a lifeline, and Bellion’s goal certainly helped to ease the pressure.
The game finished with Sunderland winning the three points and picking up a clean sheet - something that became reasonably rare for The Lads in that season.
The goal Bellion scored was possibly the making of him, as it catapulted him into the attention of the wider footballing world - and we all know where he eventually ended up.
Still, at that moment things felt better, for the day at least.