The 2004-05 Championship winning season saw Sunderland come to the boil at the perfect time. After an iffy opening month, Mick McCarthy’s side were always in and around the leading pack, and while a lacklustre defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion had cast some doubt over Sunderland’s credentials, the response to it proved emphatic.
The Lads quickly began making amends with a convincing midweek win over Rotherham United, and on this day in 2005 they followed it up with another important home victory.
This time the opponents were Cardiff City, who had been very hard to beat when the two sides had met in Wales two months earlier. Goals from Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence in the final quarter of the game turned out to be the difference on that occasion, but here it was an early opener that set Sunderland on the way.
There were two changes to the starting XI that had started against the Millers, with Stephen Wright and Julio Arca being replaced by Mark Lynch and Andy Welsh, but the side soon picked up from where they had left off.
It was Welsh in fact that created the goal, swinging the ball in from the left for Gary Breen to control and strike past Neil Alexander. The Cardiff keeper did get something onto the shot only for the ball to bounce into the turf and up over Chris Barker on the line, but it had been an excellent touch and a clean strike by the Sunderland captain who, in that moment, could have easily passed for an accomplished striker.
Breen had also scored against Rotherham and, having now got two goals in two games, he spent the rest of the match carrying out his day job in central defence, leaving the rest of Sunderland’s attacking play to their forwards; Welsh and Stephen Elliott both looked dangerous throughout, as did Lawrence who was brought on as a first-half substitute following an injury to Lynch. The youthful trio all brought energy and enterprise, and they worked well with the guile shown by Marcus Stewart in the centre.
This proved to be the last appearance in a Sunderland shirt for Lynch, who joined Hull City over the summer. In the immediate aftermath of his withdrawal, Sunderland were forced into a reshuffle, with Whitehead dropping to right back. It was a role he would adapt to well over the course of his time at the club and, from that position, he set up the second goal of the afternoon when his deep cross saw Stewart nip across his man and nod home.
The visitors featured both Graham Kavanagh and Darren Williams in their side but never really looked like getting back into the game, even after Tony Vidmar had pulled a goal back with five minutes to go when his attempt to put the ball into the mixer instead fluked over Thomas Myhre. A straight red card for a professional foul by Alan Lee shortly afterwards killed any momentum they had, and the points deservedly remained on Wearside.
Sunderland had timed things just right. With rivals Wigan Athletic and Ipswich Town both losing they moved level on points with the pair and were now second in the table on goal difference. It was the first time they had been in the automatic promotion places all year and yet they were still not done – six more consecutive wins followed to put them top, and that’s where they stayed for the rest of the season.
Saturday 26 February 2005
Sunderland 2 (Breen 4, Stewart 42)
Cardiff City 1 (Vidmar 85)
Sunderland: Myhre; Lynch (Lawrence 36), Breen, Caldwell, McCartney; Whitehead, Robinson, Whitley, Welsh (Collins 90); Elliott (Brown 90), Stewart. Unused: Alnwick, Bridges
Cardiff: Alexander, Weston (Williams 5), Barker, Kavanagh, Gabbidon, Vidmar, McAnuff, Imnamoto (Ledley 69), Jerome (Lee 58) Langley. Subs not used: Warner, Bullock.
Stadium of Light, attendance 32,788