It’s often overlooked or at the very least underrated, just how impressive Mick McCarthy’s first full season in charge was.
Back in the summer of 2003 we had just come off the back of breaking the record for the lowest points tally in the Premier League (for the first time) having lost the last 15 (for those who remember the old BBC vidiprinter on Grandstand, that’s FIFTEEN) games of the season.
That summer saw the exodus of the squad that Peter Reid had built when we hit the dizzy heights of back-to-back 7th place finishes in the Premier League.
The financial situation at the club meant that the likes of Jody Craddock, Thomas Sorensen, Gavin McCann, Stefan Schwarz and Emerson Thome had already left, and by the time of the opening day of the season, Micheal Gray, Tore Andre Flo, Kevin Kilbane and of course Kevin Phillips were all in the process of securing deals away from the club.
The players were also asked to defer wages with the club struggling and after an opening day defeat to Nottingham Forest which was followed up by another defeat to Millwall which left us 23rd in the table, things were looking bleak.
But slowly, McCarthy began to turn the tide, and by the turn of the year we found ourselves in a play-off position as our FA Cup campaign began with a 1-0 victory over Hartlepool United in the third round to begin 2004.
This good run continued, but not only in the league but the FA Cup as well. Ipswich Town, Birmingham City and Sheffield United were all dispatched as we found ourselves with a semi-final place with Dennis Wise’s Millwall the opposition, who were themselves hovering around the play-off’s.
But despite going into the semi-final in good form, having won seven and drawn two in the last nine, we didn’t turn up at Old Trafford and Millwall went on to the final. Following the blow of missing out on an FA Cup final appearance, we seemed to be galvanised for the push for an automatic promotion spot as another two straight wins followed.
But in typical Sunderland fashion, a defeat to Ipswich then left us 3rd behind Gary Megson’s West Bromwich Albion, with a gap of nine points but we had a game in hand over the Baggies.
This was the backdrop to the clash at the Stadium of Light on this day 18 years ago, win and we would be potentially be three points behind if we won our game in hand, or lose and we could kiss goodbye to the automatic promotion spots as we looked over our shoulders to confirm a play-off spot.
With Gary Megson at the helm, West Brom turned up simply to avoid defeat. They set their stall out to absorb anything we could throw at them which meant chances were few and far between. We had most of the possession but couldn’t find a piece of magic that would unlock the Albion defence.
The introduction of Kevin Kyle just before the hour mark, when he replaced John Oster, sparked life into Mick McCarthy’s side for the final half an hour of the game as we fielded a trio of Darren Byfield, Tommy Smith and Kevin Kyle in a bid to cut the gap to just six points.
The game remained goalless as it went into time added on, Sunderland were pushing on for a late winner as the commentator remarked:
They (WBA) just had to come here and avoid defeat and it looks like they have done so, it looks like they will be keeping Sunderland at bay and it looks like they will be keeping Sunderland nine points behind...
Immediately after this comment was completed yet another poor cross into the West Bromwich Albion area was cleared and found it’s way to substitute Lloyd Dyer on the left, who realised that the home side had committed all but two players to the attack.
After carrying the ball from midway inside his own half to midway inside Sunderland’s half, he exchanged passes with Neil Clement before riding a Darren Williams tackle and slid the ball across the box to an unmarked Jason Koumas who calmly slotted the ball past Mart Poom.
With virtually the final kick of the game West Brom knew that they had all but sealed promotion back to the Premier League and for most of the 32,201 in attendance knew that Sunderland would need to focus on securing a play-off place.
Sunday 18th April, 2004
Nationwide Football League Division One
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 0-1 West Bromwich Albion
Sunderland: Poom, Williams, Breen, Babb, McCartney (Bjorklund), Oster (Kyle), Robinson, Whitley, Arca, Byfield, Smith Substitutes not used: Myhre, Thornton, Stewart
West Bromwich Albion: Hoult, Chambers, Robinson, Gregan, Gaardsoe, Moore (Koumas), Kinsella, Johnson, Horsfield (Hulse), Dobie (Dyer), Clement Substitutes not used: Murphy, Hughes