There was not a lot of hope or enthusiasm surrounding the Sunderland team as the 2003-04 season commenced. After being relegated with a meagre total of 19 points, Mick McCarthy sold many big names as costs were drastically cut.
The Irishman argued that if the departing players were as good as some claimed, the team wouldn’t have been relegated in such an embarrassing fashion.
In their place, McCarthy drafted in players he knew and trusted on the cheap. Among them was his Irish counterpart Gary Breen, who was part of McCarthy’s Republic Of Ireland squad for the 2002 World Cup finals.
After such a barren run with very few wins, Breen was seen as the strong individual character that was required in the dressing room to help Sunderland learn how to win games again.
After a shaky start, the team appeared to settle into a rhythm which led to them competing for promotion. McCarthy had the team transformed - with his ‘little and large’ pairing of Marcus Stewart and Kevin Kyle both notching 16 goals for the season.
This form - along with a strong defence - enabled Sunderland to reach the league playoffs but also the semi-final of the FA Cup where they faced off with Millwall on this day in 2004.
Our FA Cup run had seen us beat Ipswich, Sheffield United and Premier League Birmingham City. We reached the semi-finals without, it seemed, the anxiety or struggle of previous cup runs - but the form of striker Tommy Smith in the competition does live on as a lasting memory.
In the year that Bob Stokoe passed away, we had a great chance of reaching the final and with it guaranteed European qualification given finalists Manchester United’s Champions League qualification.
The prize of European football was seen as big as reaching the final given the mammoth task of facing off with Sir Alex Ferguson’s United.
The atmosphere was brilliant with both fans bringing colour and noise - which was one advantage of having the game played at a smaller stadium - though it left many fans ticketless.
The game was an even tussle. Sunderland’s league results against Millwall were very poor, but it mattered for very little as the game got underway. The early pressure was put on by us - and after just six minutes, we should have been ahead.
After we won a free kick on the edge of the Millwall box, John Oster’s wonderful shot hit the underside of the bar, which would have been the perfect start.
After that point, the game became nip and tuck, with chances at a premium. Millwall’s experienced heads of Dennis Wise, Kevin Muscat and ex-Sunderland striker Danny Dichio probably allowed them to settle better into the game in comparison to ours.
The crucial moment came just minutes before the half hour mark.
George McCartney underhit a pass to Phil Babb and Ifill latched on to the ball. The midfielder cut inside and shot only for Mart Poom to save, but the ball fell to Cahill who calmly sidefooted home via a deflection off McCartney, whose desperation to make amends for his mistake ultimately forced the ball into the net.
This was the beginning of the Tim Cahill curse - a player who became a scourge for Sunderland fans for years to come as he moved on to play for Everton.
As the second half commenced, we had no choice but to chase the game - which we did. Kevin Kyle lashed the ball just wide after a scramble in the Millwall box, and the same player came even closer a minute later with a header that Marshall was at full stretch to tip away.
Millwall were on the back foot and nervous, and Arca blazed wildly over from 12 yards as the ball broke in another goalmouth scramble. Minutes later, Sunderland still threatened, and Cahill had to head a speculative Gary Breen shot to safety.
McCartney came desperately close with six minutes remaining, latching on to a pass with the Millwall defence snoozing, but he curled a left-foot shot inches wide.
Just after this, Jason McAteer was sent off for a second yellow for stopping a Millwall counter attack, which ultimately seemed to be the end of our challenge.
In a dramatic finale, Matt Piper forced a tremendous save from Lawrence in the dying seconds in a tremendous finish, but it was not enough for Sunderland.
The dream of Europe and another FA Cup final was over.
This would be the first of two heartbreaking semi finals of this season. So close, yet so far.
Sunderland: Poom, McCartney, Babb (Piper 77), Breen, Wright (Thornton 90), Arca, Thirlwell, McAteer, Oster, Kyle (Stewart 61), Smith.
Subs Not Used: Williams, Myhre.
Sent Off: McAteer (86).
Booked: McAteer, McCartney, Thirlwell.
Millwall: Marshall, Lawrence, Muscat (Roberts 42), Ward, Livermore, Cahill, Wise, Ifill (Sweeney 29), Dichio, Ryan (Elliott 56), Harris.
Subs Not Used: Gueret, Chadwick.
Booked: Ifill, Wise.
Referee: P Durkin (Dorset).