The end of the Peter Reid era was like that break-up where neither side want to part ways, but they also know it was the best thing for all concerned.
Looking back, the rot began to set in as early as January 2001, which might sound strange as we sat 2nd in the Premier League, but following a 2-0 win at Harry Redknapp’s West Ham thanks to goals from Stanislav Varga and Don Hutchison it was pretty much all downhill from there.
We won only three of the remaining fifteen games and dropped from 2nd to finish 7th for a second successive season, but that was still a fantasy land and we didn’t care all that much about the dip, we finished 7th in the Premier League... again!
We’d regroup and rebuild and go again, we all thought, but recruitment wasn’t great and the following season was a gradual decline where we would one place and four points above the drop.
Many thought it might be time for Reid to call it a day then. It would be a good point to call it a day and say thank you for what would have been an unbelievable seven years, but at the same time there was a feeling he could sprinkle the magic once more and he had earned another crack.
Once again, recruitment didn’t seem to be thought out, and Tore Andre Flo and Marcus Stewart signed late in the day for big money, but they didn’t hit the ground running.
As we’d won once in the first nine and hovered a place above the relegation zone the writing was on the wall, and Peter Reid was gone.
Four days later, Bob Murray moved quickly, and came up with a name that not many others had linked to the job when he appointed 58-year-old FA Technical Director, Howard Wilkinson as our new manager, with Stoke City manager Steve Cotterill joining the club as Wilkinson’s assistant.
As reported in The Times, money had been piled on with bookmakers on either David O’Leary or Mick McCarthy getting the nod to take the Sunderland hotseat, but there was a late flurry of bets on Wilkinson. It was reported that Ladbrokes cut the odds on Wilkinson from 33/1 to 10/1 in the afternoon prior to the appointment, in the meantime, William Hill were still offering 66/1.
Other names that remained ahead of Wilkinson until late in the day was former Sunderland player George Burley and ex-Aston Villa boss John Gregory.
In terms of Cotterill, he had only been in charge at Stoke City for five months and was highly rated in the game as he was working on his UEFA Pro License at the time, and was part of the requests that Wilkinson made in order to take the assistant job, which was something he talked about following the appointment:
I’ve left Stoke with mixed emotions after just a short space of time but that has been eclipsed by getting the chance to join Sunderland. I would like to feel I have left Stoke after having guided them through a transitional period.
We have spoken about that, I have been a manager for seven years and that’s something I have got to adjust to. But I am quite happy learning and adjusting to Howard.
It’s a fantastic opportunity. They do not come much bigger than Sunderland Football Club and I am looking forward to it.
Wilkinson was the last English manager to win the top-flight of English football with Leeds United and worked as technical director at the FA following his departure of Elland Road in 1996 and talked about his return to club football:
I relish the challenge ahead here at Sunderland. It is clear to me that this is a club with a proud tradition, huge and faithful support and in the Stadium of Light and academy, facilities that will be second to none.
I feel that I have benefited massively from my time as Technical Director at the FA. It was a great opportunity to take a step back from the narrow focus that club management can have and look at the new and modern developments that were occurring in the game.
I am very grateful to Adam Crozier and the FA for understanding that the position at Sunderland is challenging and exciting at this stage in my career. I am really looking forward to working closely with Steve to develop what is on paper already a strong squad at Sunderland.
Steve has established a tremendous reputation within the game in a relatively short space of time. With my experience and Steve’s undoubted ability, I see bright and exciting times ahead for Sunderland Football Club and its supporters.
Bob Murray also talked about getting his man:
I should like to thank the FA for releasing Howard from the remainder of his contract, which was not due to expire until June 2004. The Wilkinson and Cotterill team was a key determinant of our decision to make this appointment.
We believe this partnership will reap rewards as it brings a complimentary blend of experience and achievement, with technical expertise and new ideas. While they may be from different eras, both Howard and Steve have impressive CVs, outstanding technical skills as well as the highest coaching qualifications in the game.
All of this was said on the 10th October 2002, on the 10th March 2003, five months later, Howard Wilkinson and Steve Cotterill were relieved of their duties. Fun times.