The 2001-02 season marked the end of Sunderland’s successful era under Peter Reid. Despite their initial success at the Stadium of Light, the team experienced a rapid decline in fortunes, despite appearing to have a strong squad on paper. However, games are not won on paper.
Although the squad was talented, it had become stale. Niall Quinn was struggling with form and fitness, and his potential replacement, Lillian Laslandes, was a major disappointment. Losing Don Hutchinson early in the season had also contributed to the team’s decline.
In an attempt to turn things around, Reid brought in Claudio Reyna and Patrick M’Boma in January. While both were world-class names, M’Boma only managed to score once despite flashes of his undeniable talent.
Sunderland had started the season strongly, sitting fifth by the end of September. However, from that point on, a defeat was never more than two games away. As the season progressed, their position in the league continued to fall, leaving fans bewildered by the sudden decline.
By the time they faced eventual champions Arsenal, Sunderland were in freefall, languishing in 15th place and anxiously looking over their shoulders.
One would have thought that going to the home ground of one of the best teams in Europe would be the perfect opportunity for Sunderland to shut up shop and keep Arsenal quiet early on. However, that was not the case.
After just four minutes, the task was already looking ominous, with two goals from Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp leaving the Black Cats chasing shadows at Highbury. Peter Reid’s men had no response, and the BBC stated that the defeat was a ‘confidence-sapping’ one for the away side, considering how poor their form was at this time.
In fairness to Sunderland, they recovered from the concession of the two early goals to settle themselves in the first twenty minutes, and Kevin Phillips should have pulled one back for the visitors on 16 minutes.
Having done all the hard work in shrugging off Sol Campbell and rounding David Seaman, the Sunderland striker contrived to hit the side netting.
Sunderland’s attack sparked Arsenal back into life, and the reprisal was deadly as Sylvain Wiltord scored a third on the half-hour mark.
Dennis Bergkamp picked up the ball on the edge of the area, shimmied, and passed delightfully to Wiltord, who elegantly dispatched the ball with his left foot.
At this rate, Sunderland just needed the halftime break to steady themselves - and they got there without any further damage.
One can imagine the team talk given by Peter Reid at halftime - and, in fairness, it must have worked as the Black Cats solidified themselves, keeping the score at three.
Thomas Butler and Claudio Reyna tested Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman, but that was as good as it got as Arsenal still went closest through Thierry Henry, whose goal was ruled out for offside near the final whistle.
Peter Reid conceded that his team was just beaten by the better team, and his had simply underperformed.
We knew Arsenal is always very quick out of the blocks, but we shot ourselves in the foot.
Arsenal looked like champions on this day, which was a proud one for Tony Adams, who celebrated his 500th appearance.
As for Sunderland, it was looking very likely that they would be playing in a different league than the Gunners for the 2002-03 season.
Arsenal: Seaman, Cole, Luzhny, Campbell, Adams, Ljungberg (Kanu 77), Vieira, Edu, Wiltord (Grimandi 68), Henry, Bergkamp (Jeffers 78).
Subs Not Used: Dixon, Wright.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Gray, Reyna, McCann, Bjorklund, McAteer (Butler 45), Craddock, Williams, Thirlwell, Phillips (Kilbane 76), Mboma (Quinn 21).
Subs Not Used: McCartney, Macho.
Booked: McCann, Reyna, McAteer.
Ref: P Durkin (Dorset)