Sunderland entered the new millennium in good shape. Playing in front of packed houses and with an exciting team, the club had taken to life back in Premiership very well - so well in fact that even a 5-0 hammering at Everton on Boxing Day did little to knock confidence going into the year 2000.
The Mersey beating started an unexpected downward spiral though and come the return match on Wearside on this day the Lads were still looking for their first win of the century.
The squad still had plenty of talent, but manager Peter Reid felt it needed a boost – and hoped his new striker Milton Nunez would be the man to provide it; the Honduran had arrived earlier in the week after signing from PAOK and although not involved in the game he was introduced to a welcoming crowd.
Although his Sunderland career never got going afterwards and has been the subject of much rumour since, ‘Tyson’ was warmly greeted at the time and in the short term at least his presence appeared to have had the desired effect. Encouraged, fans got behind the players who in turn started brightly, taking an early lead when Nicky Summerbee’s low free kick was deflected off the wall past visiting goalkeeper Paul Gerrard.
Under boss Walter Smith the Toffees struggled for consistency but did they have some big names and despite being dominated in the opening exchanges Everton levelled before the break courtesy of a lovely shot from England international Nick Barmby. Mark Hughes went close to putting them ahead too after the Lads had struggled to clear their lines, but instead of crumbling at that stage low in confidence Sunderland suddenly started looking like their old selves again.
Before the Hughes chance Alex Rae had run onto a through ball and fired just wide from a similar position. It was a somewhat direct move, but a more intricate passage of play was about to unfold before being finished off with a touch of real class. Some smart touches around the edge of the area saw the ball being funnelled out to Kevin Phillips, who controlled and wrapped his foot around it to send a beautiful curling effort into the top corner.
Draws in the two previous games had been encouraging, but the Black Cats were desperate for a victory and Phillips had just delivered it with a memorable strike. The Cats moniker had just been confirmed as the club’s new official nickname the month before following a fan ballot in which it polled 48% of the 10,000 plus votes cast (The Mackems was second with 37%), but without a win in the last 12 league and cup games it was already starting to feel like a highly ironic sobriquet.
The 13th match proved lucky, albeit the points were fully deserved, and helped bring about an upturn in results during the run in. Nunez however failed to capitalise on the buzz surrounding his transfer, despite a winning debut in the next home fixture. The success over Wimbledon followed a similar path to the Everton one - the substitute was given another rousing reception when he came on as the Lads once again produced a winner in the final 15 minutes having earlier been pegged back.
The story of Nunez’s spell at the Stadium of Light, and how he came to be there in the first place, is still not fully understood and remains shrouded in levels of intrigue and conjecture over disputed registration and supposed mistaken identity. All of that was still to come though, and for the time being Sunderland were just glad to finally be on their millennium way.
Saturday 25 March 2000
FA Carling Premiership
Sunderland 2 (Summerbee 7, Phillips 77)
Everton 1 (Barmby 38)
Sunderland: Sorensen; Holloway, Craddock, Williams, Makin; Summerbee, Schwarz (Bould 74), Rae, Kilbane; Quinn, Phillips. Unused: Marriott, Thirlwell, Roy, Dichio.
Stadium of Light, attendance 41,934