What a time it was.
From moving into our new home to this point in 2001 was an unbelievable period to follow Sunderland, and this would be just about the pinnacle that this squad of players reached.
It might have taken two years to get promoted to the Premier League as we bedded into the Stadium of Light, but we amassed 195 points in two seasons in doing so.
And then the test of the FA Carling Premiership was ahead of us, and although we relished the challenge, nobody envisaged it being nearly as fun as romping to the title in the Nationwide Football League Division One - but it wasn’t far off.
The likes of Stefan Schwarz and Steve Bould helped us take that next step, but it was how the players who gained promotion also stepped up to meet the challenge head-on that was most pleasing to supporters.
In our first season we sat bottom of the table on the opening day after a 4-0 defeat at Chelsea, only to be sitting second in the table at the beginning of October and finishing of lofty 7th for our highest league placing since 1955. Not only that but Kevin Phillips won the European Golden Boot with 30 goals in the Premier League.
All this was just in our first attempt, and you wouldn’t have blamed anybody for thinking it was a one-off. We were in dreamland at the unlikely rise from the mess Peter Reid inherited in April 1995, to a top-seven finish in the top flight and the top marksman in all of European football in just five years.
There’s a lot to be said for “second season syndrome”, it’s based on regular patterns, and as we sat 17th in early September of our second season in the Premier League after one victory from our opening five fixtures, there were thoughts creeping in that we’d had our fun.
But that wasn’t the case, after a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford in our fifth fixture of the season, we began an incredible run that saw only two defeats from the following 19 Premier League fixtures. An amazing run when you consider how difficult we found it to put a couple of wins together during our recent ten-year stay in the top flight.
The 19th game in that sequence may have been a slightly disappointing goalless draw at home to bottom of the table Bradford City, but it didn’t take much shine off the fact that the following day we sat second in the Premier League.
As we were sitting pretty in the Premier League table, the attention then turned to the FA Cup, where Ipswich Town would be the visitors to the Stadium of Light for a fourth round tie after we’d knocked out Division One opposition in the form of Crystal Palace via extra-time in a replay in the third round.
The draw for the fourth round meant an all-Premiership affair, where Ipswich Town were experiencing a season similar to ourselves as they sat 5th in the table and only three points behind. It was also billed as a showcase of two of the most in-form strikers in the country in Kevin Phillips for ourselves, and Marcus Stewart for the visitors.
There were calls for both players to receive a call-up to Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England squad, and both players had notched seven goals in their previous seven appearances.
As a reward for being a major part of our current run of form, Kevin Phillips’ usual strike partner Niall Quinn was rested for the cup-tie and replaced with Daniele Dichio. Dichio had played the part of understudy to the Republic of Ireland international since joining from Sampdoria for £750,000 in 1998 and had started 35 times for the club by this point, made 56 from the bench and scored 18 goals in the process.
Early in the game, Ipswich began the brighter and Marcus Stewart and Alun Armstrong should have done better with early opportunities before Sunderland broke the deadlock.
Stanislav Varga started the move by swinging one of his trademark long-range passes out wide to the ever-impressive Don Hutchison on the right-hand side, who cushioned the ball effortlessly before swinging the ball in for Dichio to beat Titus Bramble to the ball and head beyond Richard Wright.
It was to be the only goal of what turned out to be a close, tense game and the goal was actually Dichio’s first-ever goal in the FA Cup, and he was grateful for the opportunity to impress:
It’s been difficult waiting in the wings, but it’s a case of staying mentally strong. I’m learning a lot from Quinny even when I’m not in the team - he encourages me to be confident in my ability and at half-time just urged me to keep battling away at their centre-halves.
Even I’m asking just how long he’s going to keep on playing, but at least the competition for a place gives me something to aim at. If I can achieve even half of what Niall’s done for this club, I’ll be pleased.
On we went to the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1992, as we sat second in the Premier League table behind Manchester United, who were travelling to the Stadium of Light four days later for a top of the table clash - what a time it was.
Saturday 27th January, 2001
FA Cup 4th Round
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 1-0 Ipswich Town
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Craddock, Varga, Gray (Makin), Hutchison, McCann, Rae, Schwarz, Dichio, Phillips (Kilbane) Substitutes not used: Ingham, Oster, Quinn
Ipswich Town: Wright, Wilnis, Venus (Clapham), McGreal, Bramble (Scowcroft), Hreidarsson, Holland, Magilton, Wright, Armstrong (Naylor), Stewart Substitutes not used: Branagan, Reuser