You hear of “second season syndrome” every now and again when it comes to sides retaining their Premier League status in the year that follows promotion, and this is especially prevalent for sides who exceed expectations in that first year in the top flight.
After we romped to the title with 105 points in 1998/99 to return to the Premier League following a two-year absence, it’s safe to say that our 7th place finish the following year exceeded all our expectations.
It may have felt different from three years earlier as we failed to stay in the top flight in the final season at Roker Park in terms of being at our shiny new stadium, but not many people expected us to be flirting with European qualification. Having said that, there was a bizarre element of frustration that we didn’t qualify for the old UEFA Cup when you take into consideration that we sat 3rd in the table on Boxing Day.
So, going into our second season in the Premier League, with a side now containing the European Golden Boot winner in the form of Kevin Phillips, there was a fear that it was a one off and it would be business as usual where we’d end up in a dogfight at the wrong end of the table.
This fear grew when there wasn’t a huge amount of action in the transfer market during the intervening summer, where Peter Reid added only Jurgen Macho and Stanislav Varga to make their debuts in the opening day victory over Arsenal.
Things felt more comfortable when Emerson Thome, Julio Arca and most importantly in terms of the impact on the season in question, Don Hutchison, joined the ranks in the weeks that followed, but one win in the first five left us playing catch up down in 17th in the table.
This required the impressive form we had found the previous season, and amazingly we did just that as we lost only one in the next eleven league games, where Don Hutchison was proving to be a revelation in his role on the right of midfield.
This impressive form continued through the festive period until we reached our peak after finding ourselves sitting second in the table following a goalless draw at Bradford City on the 21st January.
But after that, history repeated itself and we won only one of the next ten games dropping us down to 8th with four games remaining, and our next opportunity to get back on track and keep our European qualification hopes alive was the visit of Newcastle United to the Stadium of Light.
It was Bobby Robson’s first full season at St James’ Park after steadying the ship following Ruud Gullit’s tenure the previous year, but it was taking longer than first thought to turn things around as they were trailing five places and seven points behind in 13th.
Neither side were coming into the game in any sort of form, we had only taken five points from the previous six games and Newcastle had only won one of the previous eight, but the reverse fixture at St James’ Park ended in a 2-1 victory for The Lads, largely due to goals from Don Hutchison and Niall Quinn but also to a Thomas Sorensen save from an Alan Shearer penalty.
But it was a derby and Newcastle had only lost one in the last twelve at our place which meant the bookies had it down as a tight game with Sunderland at 6/5 to take all three points, an away win was priced at 9/5 and the draw 11/5.
It was Sunderland who looked the more likely side to score in the first half, and Newcastle had Shay Given to thank for pulling off fantastic saves from Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips efforts. On the occasion the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper was beaten by an Emerson Thome header five minutes before half time, the post came to his aid to keep the game all square.
In the second half it followed a similar pattern but it took until after the hour mark for Sunderland to break the deadlock from the most unlikely of sources. French full-back Patrice Carteron was only signed on-loan from Saint-Etienne the previous month and appeared during those early appearances as an defensive, orthodox full-back.
But when Don Hutchison had possession of the ball on the right hand side of the pitch with around 25 minutes of the game remaining, the French defender got on his bike on the overlap.
His run was initially down the touchline, where it was maybe intended initially to provide Hutchison a bit more space to come inside, but as Carteron kept running down the flank, Hutchison pointed for the Frenchman to arch his run inside the defender towards the box.
The point from the Scottish international, combined with Carteron following the instruction, resulted in Hutchison sliding a sublime ball in behind the Newcastle defence and into the path of Carteron. The weight of the pass was so good, that the full-back didn’t need to take a first touch, he simply ran on to the ball and poked it past Shay Given from an angle to put us in front.
Unfortunately, the lead only lasted eleven minutes, when Andy O’Brien scored his first goal from Newcastle to give them a share of the spoils and to leave us and especially manager Peter Reid, disappointed we didn’t take all three points:
I thought we were the better side and deserved to win, but when you’re 1-0 up you’ve got to kill the game off and we didn’t. Especially in the first half when we weren’t sticking the chances in, I was thinking “This smells a bit”. But they’ve done well. I’ll take nothing away from Newcastle, they fought back well and one is never enough.
Bobby Robson was also pragmatic in his views on the game:
They had more of the ball and created more chances than we did, but we defended very well. I didn’t think we deserved to win, but on the other hand, we’ve got a valuable point.
Saturday 21st April, 2001
FA Carling Premiership
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 1-1 Newcastle United
[Carteron 66’ - O’Brien 77’]
Sunderland: Sorensen, Carteron, Craddock, Thome, Gray, Hutchison, McCann, Schwarz, Arca, Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Macho, Williams, Varga, Thirlwell, Kilbane
Newcastle United: Given, Barton, O’Brien, Dabizas, W. Quinn, Solano (Griffin), Bassedas, Acuna (Cordone), Speed, Cort, Gallagher (Ameobi) Substitutes not used: Harper, Hughes