The summer of 2002 was a bad one for Sunderland.
After two consecutive seventh-placed finishes in our first two seasons back up, we’d struggled the third – surviving on the last day of the season by virtue of other team’s failures rather than our own successes.
A major reason for our struggles was Peter Reid’s failure to adequately replace the talismanic Niall Quinn. Quinny had enjoyed a serious renaissance at Sunderland, and for a couple of seasons, was one of the most effective frontmen in the country.
But age was catching up with him.
Reid had tried Lilian Laslandes, who did little to remotely convince anyone he could play football, nevermind succeed the Irishman, and by January was on loan at German club FC Koln.
Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma had arrived on loan from Parma, but fared little better than Laslandes, and as the season progressed, question marks over Reid’s future grew larger and larger.
Still, we’d stayed up, and as the summer arrived attentions were refocused on finding a genuine successor for Quinn – one that would bring the best once again out of Kevin Phillips, who’d managed just 11 league goals in the previous campaign. Decent, but a far cry from his first two Premier League seasons, when he took the country by storm.
As we edged closer to the season’s opener against Blackburn Rovers in a week’s time, on this day 19 years ago, the search for a new striker looked like it was finally reaching a positive resolution.
It had been an underwhelming window so far. Liverpool’s Stephen Wright had arrived as a long-awaited replacement for Chris Makin, while Phil Babb had also signed from Sporting Lisbon – the manner of his arrival still providing an exemplary lesson in ‘what not to do’ in what was then the new world of digital media.
And, while striker rumours had swirled, nothing had landed.
The imminent arrival of Leeds’ 22-year-old forward Robbie Keane had been unusually announced on the club’s website, before the deal fell through, while a 21-year-old striker from Ajax, by the name of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was also in the frame to replace Quinn. Ibrahimovic, by all accounts, keen on the move, but question marks over his lack of experience meant the club hadn’t progressed with any urgency.
However, with the new season just seven days away, it looked as though our striker search would soon be over, with Espanyol’s Raul Tamudo set to fly to England for talks with Reid.
A fee of £7m had seemingly been agreed with the Spanish club for the 23-year-old Spanish international, and it seemed to be a straight fight between Sunderland and ‘cash-strapped’ Chelsea for his signature.
Tamudo’s agent, Tomas Ruiz Duran, admitted that his player would move to England and the pair are due to hold negotiations in England within the next few days.
Yes Sunderland have been talking and Chelsea are interested too, but the club that seems to be most interested is Sunderland.
Next week we are getting together, although talks right now have just been club-to-club and neither myself nor Raul have been involved.
Of course, the move didn’t happen and Reid, who’d left the club’s Spanish tour to return to the UK on a scouting mission, went into the season with only Kevin Phillips and a patched-up Niall Quinn as striking options.
In hindsight, his failure to land Tamudo – or Keane or Zlatan – ultimately cost him his job.
We did, of course, panic and sign Tore Andre Flo and Marcus Stewart for ridiculous money on deadline day. Neither of the strikers did anything much to help the goalscoring department that season, although Stewart proved valuable in the seasons that followed.
Flo certainly didn’t.
The campaign didn’t get off to the best of starts – two wins, two draws and five defeats in the league saw Reid sacked; however that points ratio, 8 from 9 games, would have been welcomed come the end of the season, as we went into complete freefall after Reid’s departure, picking up just 11 more points from the 37 games that remained. In hindsight, it was the wrong time to sack Reid – he should have either gone earlier, or we should have stuck with him that season – and it was certainly the wrong replacement .
As for Tamudo, he ended up staying put in Espanyol, where he stayed for a further eight seasons, cementing his status as one of the club’s greatest players, playing almost 400 games, and becoming their all-time record goalscorer, with 140 strikes.