After lifting the Championship trophy in May 2007 and returning to the Premier League, our first two seasons in the top flight resulted in finishing uncomfortably close to the drop zone.
In the first year, it was Roy Keane who guided us to 15th and three points clear of the bottom three and the following season saw Ricky Sbragia finish the job after the departure of Keane and finish two places and two points above the drop.
The summer of 2009 saw a reset when Steve Bruce was appointed as the new man to lead the effort to establish Sunderland as a Premier League club. Lorik Cana and Lee Cattermole were signed to add a bit of steel in the middle and Darren Bent signaled the club’s intentions when he arrived from Spurs.
A solid season ended with a 13th place which was classed as progress, which meant further progress was the expectation the following year. As the 2010-11 season began at the Stadium of Light on the 14th August against Birmingham City, four players in the starting XI were making their debuts in the form of Simon Mignolet, Nedum Onuoha, Titus Bramble and Ahmed Elmohamady, with Cristian Riveros and Danny Welbeck making their debuts from the bench in the 2-2 draw.
Asamoah Gyan, who had impressed during the 2010 World Cup had also been acquired before the end of the deadline to form a a partnership with Darren Bent up top, and hit the ground running when he scored on his debut at Wigan Athletic at the beginning of September.
By the time the January transfer window arrived, things were looking good. A last minute Gyan goal at home to Newcastle United on the 16th January, cancelled out a Kevin Nolan opener to earn Bruce’s side a point and had us sitting comfortably in 6th as we pondered where the second half the season could take us.
Within 48 hours of the final whistle of our draw against our nearest and dearest however, Darren Bent, whole played the whole 90 minutes in that game, had signed for Aston Villa. Villa had pushed the boat out and smashed their transfer record for a player that over the five seasons prior to this, had the best record in terms of league goals scored other than Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney.
Our form took an obvious nosedive after Bent left - after winning our next fixture 2-1 away to Blackpool, we lost eight and drew one in the nine that followed.
Victories over Wigan and Bolton Wanderers in the final five fixtures gave us a fighting chance of a top-half finish, but we went into the final fixture away to West Ham United in 13th. The Hammers were closing up a disastrous season and had in fact already had their relegation back to the Championship the week before.
Avram Grant had taken over from Gianfranco Zola the previous summer and had bizarrely lasted until the inevitable had been confirmed before he was relieved of his duties, which meant caretaker Kevin Keen would be on the touchline in charge.
There would be no new-manager bounce however, when after only 17 minutes, Bolo Zenden arched a header into the net from a Elmohamady cross to give the Lads an early lead. The home crowd turned up at Upton Park hoping to see a bit of pride after a torrid season, but the only wonder was how it took Sunderland so long.
It came around five minutes after the break when the away side doubled their lead and it was Stephane Sessegnon who picked the ball up near the halfway line and, without challenge carried the ball to the edge of the area where he stroked the ball home to make it 2-0.
Gyan had multiple chance to add to his tally for the season on his return from injury, but it was Riveros who added a third in injury time, when he was given time in the area to fire home.
With the season over, there was an odd story that ran three days after the fixture when the Premier League announced that the Hammers had made an official complaint against Sunderland for an illegal approach for striker Demba Ba, with a Premier League spokesman stating:
We have received a letter from West Ham United. We will look into their complaint to see if there is a case to answer.
Niall Quinn, the Sunderland chairman at the time, was said to be “bemused” by the complaint.
Saturday 22nd May, 2011
West Ham United 0-3 Sunderland
[Zenden 17’, Sessegnon 51’, Riveros 90’]
Sunderland: Mignolet, Elmohamady, Ferdinand, Onuoha, Bardsley (Riveros), Malbranque, Colback, Henderson, Zenden, Sessegnon, Gyan (Cook) Substitutes not used: Carson, Adams, Knott, Lynch, Noble
West Ham United: Green, Spence, Bridge, Hitzlsperger, Gabbidon, Tomkins (Jacobsen), Boa Morte (Parker), Collison, Piquionne, Hines (Obinna), Sears Substitutes not used: Boffin, Kovac, Stanislas, Tombides