There’s nothing quite as dangerous as a wounded animal, and when there’s a leaderless pack of them on the loose on a cold November night, you’ve got to have your wits about you.
Jeff Whitley, the Zambian-born Northern Irish international entrusted by Mick McCarthy to marshal the troops in the Sunderland midfield, spoke to James Hunter of the Chronicle in the lead-up to the visit of a recently relegated and now managerless Wolves side, and was prophetic in his predictions about the way the game would play out.
I cannot see them just coming up here to shut up shop. The game will be a lot more open tonight and that will suit us better. Wolves have not started well and they will be desperate for the three points so I expect them to come to the Stadium of Light and try to win.
I do not think it will be as one-sided as it was on Saturday because both teams will want to win. Sometimes that can happen to relegated teams and they do not make the start everyone expects - we have to make sure we take advantage of their poor performances.
We are doing well at the moment and, fingers crossed, that will continue. The gaffer played Liam Lawrence and Julio Arca as out-and-out wingers, which worked a treat. I thought they tortured Brighton’s full-backs - they will be having nightmares about those two. Liam and Julio did really well, but I do not know what team the manager will put out tonight - we will just have to wait and see.
At the time, the two sides were heading in opposite directions.
Wolves were in nineteenth place in the Coca-Cola Championship, and having disposed of the services of Dave Jones, were under the temporary stewardship of Stuart Gray. Their matchday squad, meanwhile, contained a host of familiar names- a young Joleon Lescott was in defence, Jody Craddock was on the bench and Kevin Cooper, who made one loan appearance for the Lads during the previous season, started up front.
Sunderland, in our 125th anniversary year, were aiming to go one better than we had the previous season, when a third-place finish and failure to progress through the playoffs had left fans disappointed but optimistic that we were on the up.
We’d gone unbeaten throughout October and sat well-placed in fifth, only two points outside the automatic promotion spots.
As Whitley had predicted, it was the visitors who drew first blood.
Kenny Miller scored with a curling effort after eighteen minutes, giving the visitors a lead that was maintained up to half-time, at which point Michael Bridges came off the bench to replace Marcus Stewart. It was his fifth substitute appearance during his brief return to the club where he had built his reputation.
In the second half, however, Wolves' defence sat back and sought to frustrate the home side. We huffed and puffed, but eventually, it was the wingers that Whitley had picked out as potentially crucial to our play who came to the fore.
Liam Lawrence, who’d been snapped up in the summer from Mansfield Town for a bargain fee of £175,000, eventually equalised for the Lads on fifty seven minutes with a shot from the edge of the penalty area, to finally blow down the golden wall.
Stephen Elliott then pinged one in off the bar before Julio Arca’s cross was met by his counterpart Lawrence, who scored his third goal in two games to make it 3-1 with ten minutes left on the clock.
Gray then attempted to change things up and we saw the final appearance of Paul Ince as a player at the Stadium of Light, who came off the bench in the 83rd minute.
Thankfully, however, Sunderland managed to keep the Wolves from the door with a hard-won three points, sending the 25,000-strong Stadium of Light crowd home happy.
McCarthy, though satisfied with the result, was frank in his assessment of the overall performance.
It’s nice to come from behind and win and a game, but I thought the first 10 minutes of the second half was garbage. But we improved and got the goals we deserved.
They haven’t come here to win. They’ve come here to sit back. It’s the usual one - a manager leaves, somebody else comes in and they get the result. Well, I know [Stuart Gray], I played with him, I like him, but we wanted to win the game.
Championship seasons have always been long, hard slogs and are not always the prettiest. The seeds of success are planted on dark midweek nights at this time of year, and the fruits often ripen in the April sunshine.
Wolves would wait a month before turning to former England manager Glenn Hoddle, who managed to rescue their season and ensure a relatively comfortable ninth-placed finish in the league.
Sunderland, meanwhile, would go from strength to strength, moving into third after this result, maintaining their place in the playoffs through the winter, and then accelerating through the spring to finish as champions, seven points clear of Wigan Athletic.
Sunderland: Myhre, Wright, Breen, Caldwell, Danny Collins, Lawrence, Whitley, Robinson, Arca (Carter 90’), Elliott (Brown 87’), Stewart (Bridges 45’).
Subs Not Used: Neill Collins, Alnwick.
Goals: Lawrence 57’, Elliott 68’, Lawrence 80’.
Wolverhampton: Oakes, Lowe, Bischoff, Lescott, Kennedy, Cooper (Sturridge 76’), Cameron (Ince 83’), Olofinjana, Newton, Cort, Miller.
Subs Not Used: Murray, Naylor, Craddock.
Booked: Olofinjana, Newton.
Goals: Miller 18’
Ref: A. Leake (Lancashire)