Roy Keane’s Sunderland had followed up the opening-day win against Spurs with a run of one point from four league games.
After an away draw at Birmingham, four consecutive defeats – including a 3-0 loss at Luton in the league cup (less than four months after our 5-0 Championship-sealing win at Kenilworth Road) saw everyone get a very harsh reality check.
After the customary, early-season-interrupting international break gave Keane a chance to take stock, the team was readied for a home game against Steve Coppell’s Reading. The Royals had been promoted as we’d been relegated in 2006, breaking our 105 points record in the process, and had finished a remarkable 8th in their first season in the Premier League.
Sunderland had been in the market for new players all summer – in hindsight, it was a scattergun approach, with more failures than successes. After chasing an array of strikers, Keane had managed to get one in the form of 22-year-old Trinidad and Tobago international Kenwyne Jones.
Jones had been at Southampton for three years and was wanted by both Sunderland and Derby as the promoted clubs strengthened their forward lines. Jones wanted to move to the north east, and went on strike at Southampton to force the move. He had made his debut in a tight defeat to Manchester United but had shown promise on his Premier League bow.
As Sunderland supporters looked forward to seeing Jones in action at the Stadium of Light for the first team, the prospect of the game was overshadowed by the news that 1973 goalscoring hero Ian Porterfield had passed away.
It had been known that Porterfield was ill; however, the gravity of the situation hadn’t been widely understood, and the news came as a huge shock to supporters.
The name of Ian Porterfield is engrained in the soul of every Sunderland supporter as a rite of passage, and even though I wasn’t alive in 1973, his was still a name I frequently shouted when playing football at school or with my mates – particularly when lining up for a volley in the box!
And so it was that Saturday arrived, and a hugely emotional cloud hung over the north east. Tributes had been quickly arranged by the club, 1973 teammates called together.
Supporters congregated around Bob Stokoe’s statue, shirts and other memorabilia left in Porterfield’s honour. I remember digging out my Diadora shirt from a couple of seasons earlier to write (what I presume was) an incredibly fitting and poignant message in black permanent marker and draping it on the temporary barriers around the statue.
Around 1.30pm, Quinny led Porterfield’s teammates out to take a look at the tributes left around the statue – there was a reverence in the air as everyone respected the occasion. And that reverence continued inside the stadium too – the 1973 team came onto the field, the commentary of the goal was played over the loudspeakers, and a number of tears were shed. It was the end of an era, the beginning of the end, and it felt hugely significant.
It was hugely significant.
After the pre-match formalities, which were rounded off by a minute’s applause, were complete, the game – which seemed like an undercard to the main event – kicked off. And all eyes were on new signing Jones.
The new £6m striker made an instant impression. His leap was of the type rarely seen before at the Stadium of Light – while Niall Quinn was clever in the air, Kenwyne leaped and soared, making him an incredibly difficult aerial opponent.
Both Jones and Grant Leadbitter went close before the former Saints striker showed he was about far more than winning headers. After picking up the ball 25 yards out, he turned skillfully, holding off a defender, before rifling home a low, left-foot shot. Cue delirium, and a soon-to-be-customary backflip.
1-0, and by half time it should have been more, with Jones missing two gilt-edged chances with his head. However, on his home debut, the crowd were impressed with – and encouraged by – the outlet he offered, and the undoubted ability he possessed.
Just moments into the second half, Jones played his part in securing victory – he evaded three challenges and drove down the right, crossing for Michael Chopra, who fluffed his lines. Fortunately, Ross Wallace was on hand to put the ball home.
Wallace was heavily involved in the second half. He survived a penalty claim after Liam Rosenior’s shot seemed to strike a hand, while at the other end, he had another effort cleared off the line by current Sunderland reserve coach, Graeme Murty.
Reading, who hadn’t scored a second-half goal, or an away goal, all season, of course got a consolation, with Dave Kitson nodding past Craig Gordon, but we nervously held on for the win on a day we remembered the past – while also getting a glimpse of the future.
After the game, Keane said:
The players were fantastic and the fans were all day. It was quite emotional before the game and it was a great tribute to a top player.
It was a good display. The last few minutes were nervous due to a sloppy goal, but we should have been 4-0 up.
Kenwyne Jones was different class. They just could not handle him today.