The difference between the final days of the Steve Bruce era at Sunderland and the first few months under his replacement Martin O’Neill was stark.
O’Neill had been the fans’ choice for some time and having eventually arrived at the club he’d supported as a youngster, he quickly started getting the best out of the squad.
The team scored a number of fantastic goals and notched up a series of impressive wins under his early guidance, and a trip to Stoke-on-Trent eleven years ago today proved to be another memorable day for the new boss.
Low temperatures prior to kickoff led to a light dusting of snow covering the pitch, with the ground staff forced to repaint the lines blue so they could be picked out.
The weather worsened as the afternoon went on, and although it was the Lads who got to grips with things, the blizzard eventually became so severe that any hopes of an attractive contest were quickly forgotten.
Playing into a strong wind and with thick snow coming down, the second half was a real battle for O’Neill’s team, despite being handed an advantage just before the break when Robert Huth was shown a red card following a wild tackle on David Meyler.
Full of confidence after four league wins out of five, we dug deep and showed great determination to secure the victory.
The winner came from a slick move that was even more impressive given the freak conditions, with Stephane Sessegnon finding the time to turn and send the ball into James McClean.
The winger was still a popular figure on Wearside at this point, and he showed a combination of strength and composure to fend off Andy Wilkinson, cut past Ryan Shawcross and then roll a shot underneath Thomas Sorensen.
The Dane was one of two ex-Sunderland players in the starting line-up for Stoke, with Rory Delap playing in front of him as part of a defence that also included future signing Marc Wilson. Completing the picture, Dean Whitehead and Kenwyne Jones were unused substitutes.
However, there were to be no favours for the old boys as we stuck to the task and ground out a victory amid the storm.
Once he’d thawed out a bit, a bedraggled O’Neill appeared in front of the TV cameras to praise the desire that had been on show and to compliment his players for getting through the match.
His opposite number Tony Pulis was not quite as magnanimous, however, claiming that Meyler had made a meal of things in an attempt to get Huth sent off - not that the FA would agree. They later rejected an appeal from Stoke and upheld referee Martin Atkinson’s original decision.
That little sideshow will have been of little interest to the Sunderland fans, who had something more immediate on their minds at full time.
With various blockages and road closures, the journey home would end up being quite the trek, albeit enlivened by having three more points on the board and the hope that the good times would continue.
Saturday 4th February 2012.
Barclays Premier League.
Stoke City 0
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, O’Shea; Turner, Richardson, Larsson; Meyler (Elmohamady 85’), Colback, Gardner; McClean, Sessegnon.
Unused: Westwood, Bridge, Kyrgiakos; Ji, Campbell, Wickham.