Lifting the Championship trophy back on this day in 2005 was a culmination of two years of hard work that went into to turning us around following our pitiful relegation in 2002-03.
Mick McCarthy had arrived towards the end of that season, taking over from Howard Wilkinson for his first game in charge against Bolton Wanderers at the Stadium of Light as we were on a run of six straight defeats. We lost in McCarthy’s first game at the helm, and the eight that followed before the season ended.
We finished bottom on 19 points - only 24 points from safety.
From the new manager’s point of view, it was clear it was a rebuilding job but this relegation drew the line under the end of the Peter Reid era. The likes of Stefan Schwarz, Niall Quinn, Emerson Thome, Thomas Sorensen, Gavin McCann, Jody Craddock and Kevin Phillips all played their last game in the red and white stripes during that ill-fated season.
The exodus even continued into the following season with Tore Andre Flo, Michael Gray and Kevin Kilbane all leaving within the first handful of games into our recovery after our drop to the Championship.
The club were also in a bit of a mess financially as a result of relegation and with big earners like Joachim Björklund, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb remaining on the books, there was only so much McCarthy could do to rebuild the squad. After losing our opening two games, there was a fear that we couldn’t turn around that losing habit, but we went on to finish 3rd in the table, losing out to Crystal Palace in the play-offs, as well as reaching the FA Cup semi-final where we lost out to Millwall.
A great result under the circumstances, and especially when it was essentially the first step in the rebuilding process, because the exodus from the Premier League era continued. Björklund, McAteer and Babb left the club following defeat in the playoffs and Mick McCarthy then had a bit of wiggle room to go shopping.
The former Republic of Ireland manager scoured the lower leagues for the best young talent as well as some of the bigger clubs to attract youngsters who weren’t being provided an opportunity to show what they could do. In came Stephen Elliott, Liam Lawrence, Dean Whitehead, Steve Caldwell, Neill Collins, Danny Collins and Carl Robinson and after an initial settling in period, we looked a different side.
Patience was required from the stands as we sat 15th in the table after seven games, but McCarthy’s young side began to hit their stride and by the beginning of March we topped the table for the first time after an impressive 2-0 win at Burnley.
Our win at Turf Moor was the third in a run of eight successive victories, with the last one being an epic Tuesday night where we ran out 1-0 winners at Wigan Athletic - who were our closest rivals sitting directly below us in 2nd and were looking to cut the gap to two only points.
Promotion had been confirmed with two games remaining, but even so, we travelled to Alan Pardew’s West Ham United who were scrapping for a top-six finish and came from behind to win 2-1 to secure the title.
This resulted in a carnival atmosphere at the Stadium of Light when 47,350 were in attendance for the visit of Tony Pulis’ Stoke City - which would be followed by the trophy presentation.
Stoke had nothing to play for, sitting in mid-table, but in typical Pulis style they came to spoil the party. Both sides had chances, Lawrence for the Lads and Karl Henry for the visitors - future Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones also had a quiet afternoon.
We’d have to wait until just before the hour for the deadlock was broken, when a Lawrence free-kick found Robinson who scored his fourth goal of the season to get the party started.
Stoke were Stoke for the remaining half an hour, which meant Marcus Stewart - who had already announced it would be his final appearance for the club - would come off the field with seven minutes remaining without the goal he craved, but he would walk off to a standing ovation.
The trophy was brought out and club captain Gary Breen lifted it high to celebrate an impressive turnaround in the two full seasons that McCarthy had taken to rebuild the squad to return to the Premier League.
Then attention turned to preparations for our campaign, where we’d surely ensure that mistakes from previous years weren’t repeated...
Saturday 8th May, 2005
Sunderland 1-0 Stoke City
Sunderland: Alnwick, Wright, Breen (N. Collins), Caldwell, McCartney, Lawrence, Robinson, Whitehead, Arca, Brown (Elliott), Stewart (Welsh) Substitutes not used: Carson, Deane
Stoke City: Simonsen, Buxton, Clarke, Henry (Halls), Taggart, Duberry, Russell, Brammer, Jones (Ricketts), Noel-Williams (Paterson) Substitutes not used: De Goey, Neal