The Law of Akinbiyi – which states that, whenever a team or player that’s going through a poor run of form faces Sunderland, their form will suddenly come good – was born in 2001 after the then-Leicester striker, who was going through a seven-month, 1,500-minute plus dry spell, netted the only goal of the game as Dave Basset’s team came out on top of Peter Reid’s men at Filbert Street.
If you’re a team going through a long spell without a win, or a striker going through a long spell without a goal, the law states: play Sunderland.
Fast forward four years and Akinbiyi, who’d subsequently plied his trade at Palace and Stoke, signed for Steve Cotterill’s Burnley.
Sunderland, having missed out on promotion the season before, were motoring up the league, and had hit form at exactly the right time. We went into the game at Burnley, which was live on Sky on a Friday night, in second position, knowing a win would take us top.
But, of course, there was Mr Akinbiyi to consider.
With depressing predictability, our muscular tormentor, who’d been hampered by a calf injury since signing for The Clarets 10 days earlier, recovered just in time to take his place on the bench against Mick McCarthy’s men, who were coming off the back of a couple of good home wins, against Rotherham and Cardiff.
The lads got off to a good start, with Liam Lawrence heading in from close range midway through the first half. It was a scrappy-as-they-come goal: Sean Thornton’s corner landed at the feet of Marcus Stewart via Gary Breen’s head. The former Ipswich striker, who’d really come into his own during this season, rifled in a shot that deflected up off two Burnley defenders into the path of Liam Lawrence, who was practically on the goal line to head past Brian ‘The Beast’ Jensen. It was Lawrence’s first start of the year after a spell on the sidelines, and he marked it in style.
The corner taker, Thornton, was a superb player on his day, and was making his first start for a while after impressing from the bench against Rotherham, scoring two great goals, including a cracking freekick.
Unfortunately for him, his day didn’t come round that often – although most of the time it was of his own choosing.
With a one goal lead, and the excellent Thomas Myhre between the sticks, Sunderland took control of the game, playing some good football and as the second half progressed it looked as though we were the most likely to extend our hold on the game.
A Jeff Whitley effort (yes, really) was well saved by Jensen, and then, as the game entered its final, precariously-balanced stages, the moment we’d all been fearing – Ade Akinbiyi emerged from the bench.
It was one of those ‘here we go’ moments all Sunderland supporters are only too familiar with – there was an inevitability that Akinbiyi would equalise; we’d read this script before.
And the moment looked to have come moments after his arrival on the pitch: Myhre parried the ball to his right from a long-range shot, and as the ball was crossed in from the left Akinbiyi rose unmarked, six yards out – only to head straight into Myhre’s hands.
It was a golden opportunity for Akinbiyi, and one that evidently played on his mind. Moments later, he chased a ball into the box and, as George McCartney shepherded the ball out Akinibiyi first launched an elbow into the back of the Northern Irishman’s neck, and then followed it up with a headbutt for good measure.
His spell on the pitch lasted a glorious 180, action-packed seconds.
Marcus Stewart sealed the game with a minute left, tapping in from Chris Brown’s cross. It was a debatable goal – Whitley looked to have fouled a Burnley player in the build-up, but ultimately – at such a late stage – it made little difference.
The win was the third in a row as Sunderland enjoyed a superb run in – winning 11 and drawing one of our final 13 games as we marched to the title.
I always find it a little strange that this squad isn’t as fondly remembered as the promotion-winning squads under Reid and Keane – I suspect it’s because of what followed the season after.
Individually, the players perhaps weren’t as talented as those in Reid and Keane’s squads, but that surely makes the job Mick McCarthy did that season all the more impressive.