Claudio Reyna’s performances since arriving on Wearside in December 2001 had been promising.
The midfielder had added some real quality to what already looked like a decent enough squad, but although the USA international was able to maintain his own standards, Sunderland’s season had turned into a real slog by the start of April.
Comfortably in mid-table after Reyna had scored on his home debut against Everton, results thereafter, particularly on the road, weren’t the best and had left us too close to the relegation zone for comfort.
Having established a nasty habit of starting games slowly, we knew that we needed to get out of the traps quickly against bottom club Leicester City, and thankfully we had a star in stripes who was ready to do the business.
With only three minutes on the clock, Reyna hit a superb volley past Ian Walker to put us ahead, and whilst the visitors responded quickly, the controversial buildup to their equaliser seemed to galvanise Peter Reid’s side.
What looked like a clear infringement on Darren Williams was seen as a Sunderland foul by referee Neale Barry and from the resulting free kick, the Foxes snaffled a goal with Paul Dickov getting the final touch after Thomas Sorensen had got a hand to Matt Elliott’s initial header.
It was Dickov who’d appeared to obstruct Williams in the first place, and initially the linesman had agreed before being overruled.
The Lads didn’t take it lying down however, and were soon in front again following another superb finish from Reyna, who this time bent a free kick over the wall.
The former Rangers man then hit the woodwork twice as he tried to make sure of the win but he’d done his bit already, and this was also the first time Sunderland had scored more than once in a game all year.
Kevin Kilbane and Kevin Phillips, who’d been fouled for the winning free kick, also went close, but overall this was a bad-tempered affair during which the players simply had to stand their ground. Future Sunderland striker Brian Deane was one of five to be cautioned as the Black Cats ground out the points.
Despite the scrappy nature of proceedings, assistant manager Bobby Saxton was relatively pleased afterwards, commenting on the quality of Reyna’s goals and expressing happiness at the increased number of goals coming from midfield.
The victory had made it seven points from a possible nine at home, with efforts from Jason McAteer seeing off Bolton Wanderers and then helping us to earn a draw against Southampton.
The Leicester success made it another pleasurable journey home for the supporters, with those making their way out at full time now having increased transport options following the opening of the long-awaited Metro extension into Sunderland twenty four hours before.
It went some way to addressing the imbalance in the wider region’s spending and infrastructure, and passengers will have been encouraged by signs that their team were possibly back on track, but progress failed to materialise.
There were to be no more wins for the rest of the season, with the squad limping over the line and finishing just above the drop zone.
Match winner Reyna also missed most of the following campaign through injury, and without his ability to influence fixtures, the club found itself hitting the buffers.
Monday 1 April 2002
Sunderland 2 (Reyna 3’, 18’)
Leicester City 1 (Dickov 9’)
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Craddock; Bjorklund, Gray, McAteer, Reyna (Thirlwell 85’); McCann, Kilbane, Quinn; Phillips. Unused: Macho, McCartney, Butler, Mboma.
Stadium of Light, Sunderland