Sunderland’s return to the top flight under Peter Reid in 1999/00 had been a huge success. A seventh-placed finish combined with Super Kev and Quinny ripping it up meant there was a lot of positivity on Wearside at the turn of the century.
It hadn’t all gone our own way, however.
While seventh place in our first season back up was impressive, there was a nagging feeling that it should have been so much better. After sitting third in the table at Christmas, we suffered a significant downturn in form – five wins and nine defeats in the last 20 games of the season meant we entered the new campaign with a few lingering concerns.
Compounding that was the fact that Kevin Phillips had been completely overlooked at Euro 2000, despite his European Golden Boot winning 30 league goals in his debut top-flight season.
At the time it seemed ridiculous he couldn’t get a real look in – whether the black-and-white bias of Keegan and Shearer held sway is something that can never be proven definitively, but for those who can do simple maths, two plus two definitely equalled four on this occasion.
Would the ambitious Phillips feel the need to prove himself at a more fashionable club?
There were certainly rumours to that effect. And despite the signing of Don Hutchison from Everton, the new season began as the previous one had finished. While a Stan Varga-inspired opening day win over Arsenal inspired hope, consecutive away defeats to Manchester City, Ipswich Town and Manchester United – punctuated by a home draw to West Ham on Julio Arca’s debut – meant even the most optimistic lads fan couldn’t help but wonder what was to come.
Come October, a 0-0 draw at home to Leicester meant we were sitting in 14th position, with nine points from eight league games – however, things changed dramatically post the subsequent international break.
England – with Phillips again an unused sub – went down 1-0 to Germany in their first qualifying game for the Japan/South Korea 2002 World Cup. Keegan – as he was prone to do – chucked the towel in, paving the way for a protracted pursuit of Lazio’s Sven Goran Eriksson as the country’s first overseas manager.
Sunderland returned to action a different beast. Phillips, with a point to prove – again – netted the only goal in an ill-tempered 1-0 win over Chelsea, which set us on a run of nine wins and three draws in the next 13 games.
By the time Sunderland travelled to Upton Park to take on Harry Redknapp’s West Ham – 22 years ago today – we were sitting in third place, with Phillips having bagged five in his last three.
As luck would have it, Lazio had decided it would be best for all concerned if Sven left Rome post-haste. He officially took hold of the England reins in the days preceding the game, and decided West Ham versus Sunderland was the perfect fixture to baptise himself.
Whether it was the pull of Kev, Micky Gray and Gavin McCann – who along with Darren Williams were the only English players in the Sunderland team (Hutchison, of course, declaring himself Scottish when it suited) – or the likes of Frank Lampard, Trevor Sinclair and Joe Cole in the Hammers team remains a mystery.
But the watching Swede was mightily impressed with the lads in red and white.
In a tightly contested game, it was our Slovakian defender Stan Varga who gave Sunderland an early lead, heading home a cross from the right past former mag Shaka Hislop. Sunderland had been under the cosh a little – Di Canio being denied by Sorensen – and West Ham immediately went in search of the equaliser; Sinclair and Cole both missing good chances.
Sorensen again came to the rescue – producing a fantastic save from a trademark piledriver from Stuart Pearce, before Sunderland sealed the win.
The goal came courtesy of former West Ham midfielder Hutchison. He was a really clever player, as well as being superb technically, and scored a quick free kick while West Ham were still getting their defensive wall sorted. He’d scored on a few weeks earlier against Manchester City too, and it was typical of his ‘always on’ mentality.
You don’t see goals from quick free kicks too often these days – for whatever reason refs don’t allow the opportunity, which is counterintuitive as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, the game ended 2-0, Sunderland moved up to second place in the table and Phillips and co were looking forward to a new international era.
Phillips and the previously uncapped McCann were both named in Eriksson’s first England squad for a game at Villa Park against Spain a month later – along with Lampard and Joe Cole, who was also yet to make his England debut.
On the domestic front, meanwhile, the lads were very much looking up. And, with home games against Bradford and Manchester United, and a trip to Derby, in the immediate future, everyone was hopeful we’d realise our significant potential in the second half of the campaign.
Saturday 13th January, 2001
FA Carling Premiership
Boleyn Ground, Upton Park
West Ham United 0-2 Sunderland
[Varga 23’, Hutchison 68’]
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Gray, McCann, Varga, Thome, Hutchison, Rae, Quinn (Kilbane), Phillips, Schwarz Substitutes not used: Ingham, McCartney, Craddock, Oster.
West Ham United: Hislop (Forrest), Sinclair, Winterburn, Tihinen (Camara), Song, Pearce, Lampard, Cole, Kanoute, Di Canio, Lomas Substitutes not used: Potts, Bassila (yes, that one...), Moncur