While today, we’re enjoying (well, most of us are enjoying) being back in the Championship after four seasons away, 19 years ago Sunderland were back in the Championship after four seasons away – and all was not well.
We’d enjoyed a relatively brief period of success – two seasons flying high in the Premiership, followed by a couple of seasons of struggle – and those huge highs were soon replaced by monumental lows.
Chairman Bob Murray didn’t back Peter Reid when he should have, but backed him when he shouldn’t; didn’t sack him when he should have, yet sacked him when he shouldn’t, and as quickly as success arrived, it evaporated.
Howard Wilkinson arrived, made sure the final nail of the coffin was well and truly hammered in, and departed as quickly as he came. Mick McCarthy – who should have been appointed as Reid’s replacement – belatedly arrived, on a hiding to nothing.
Relegation came, followed by a firesale. The team Reid had built over the past seven years dismantled; flogged off to the highest bidder – albeit for a fraction of the fees we could have attracted had we sold at the ‘right’ time. Lessons from years ago that are relevant for the here and now, but that’s a story for another day.
Phillips, McCann, Sorensen, Gray, Craddock, Reyna, Flo and Kilbane were among those to leave before the transfer window shut, and McCarthy was left relying on loans, frees and whoever other clubs didn’t want.
After a hungover start to the season, our form picked up and we were sitting in 5th place in the table, with 32 points after 18 games.
It was a campaign built on defence, however – in the last eight games we’d conceded just two and kept six clean sheets. And that was fortunate, because we’d only scored five goals – and three of them were in one game.
So, Mick McCarthy was looking to strengthen his attack, and was casting his free-transfer net far and wide.
The latest striker to be trawled into the Academy of Light was £500,000 rated Peter Kovacs, a 6ft 6in Hungarian striker from Norwegian club, Tromso.
Kovacs, who was 25 at the time, had scored against Liverpool for FC Haka in the Champions League a couple of years earlier, and was making a name for himself as a goalscoring striker.
Just what we needed.
Kovacs arrived at the AoL 19 years ago today for a few days’ trial,
The talkative Kovacs said:
I will train with Sunderland until Thursday. This is a great chance for me.
His slightly chattier chairman said:
We have a contract with Peter but we will deal with any firm offers if they come. Before that happens I will not speculate about anything.
The chance of anything happening, however, disappeared the next day.
Kovacs hadn’t played international football, and with Hungary yet being a member of the EU, he was relying on a work permit – which wouldn’t have been granted.
And, with that news, he disappeared as quickly as he arrived. He played most of his career in Norway, and in 2009 finished as second top scorer in the Norwegian Premier League.
In first place? Rade Prica.