At the end of the 2002-03 season, Sunderland were relegated having only accumulated 19 points in the entire season.
In the fall out of an emotional and almost comical year that saw the end of the Peter Reid era and a brief stint with Howard Wilkinson at the helm, we all thought it couldn’t get much worse - but we were wrong.
Mick McCarthy was the man to pick up the pieces after the Wilkinson disaster and the job he did gets more impressive each time the mind wanders back.
It took two years to get back to the Premier League, but McCarthy achieved this while also completely rebuilding the squad on a shoestring budget. After the first attempt ended in defeat in the play-off semi-final against Ian Dowie’s Crystal Palace, the second saw captain Gary Breen lift the championship trophy.
The squad had been put together with bargains from the lower leagues, young players whose time were up at one of the big clubs and those who were at the opposite end of their careers.
Even though the title was won by a gap of seven points with a haul of 94 by the end of the season, it was achieved by being organised as much as it was by blowing teams away.
It was obvious to anyone that McCarthy needed to strengthen, but the club weren’t in a position to fund anything like what would be needed to compete at the highest level.
The opening day of the Premiership (as it was then) season, was a stark sign of things to come when Sunderland travelled to Alan Curbishley’s Charlton Athletic. After finishing 11th the season before, they were aiming for another season in mid-table mediocrity.
McCarthy handed debuts to goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, midfielder Tommy Miller and forwards Andy Gray and Jon Stead in the starting XI at the Valley, with Nyron Nosworthy making his first appearance in red and white from the bench - but it ended with a comfortable 3-1 for the hosts.
And so it continued. Performances weren’t awful, as always under McCarthy, the effort couldn’t be faulted - but they simply weren’t good enough.
By the time the seventh league fixture of the season arrived, which took Sunderland to the Riverside to take on Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough, we had one point on the table - courtesy of a 1-1 draw at home against Bryan Robson’s fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion.
Boro were flying high under McClaren having reached the last 16 of the UEFA Cup and finished 7th the previous season, as well as having won the League Cup the year before that.
With Boro sitting comfortably in mid-table once again and having come off the back of an impressive win over Arsenal, it looked like a tall order to come away with a win - but every game looked that way that season.
McCarthy made a big call ahead of kick-off when he dropped his biggest signing of the summer, Jon Stead to replace him with Stephen Elliott, but it was his partner Gray who won a header in the opening minutes to flick on a long punt forward from Davis.
The ball found the run of Miller who had surged forward and after rebounding off Gareth Southgate, Miller struck a low shot that found the net via the inside of the post.
It was only the fourth goal the Lads had scored all season and the second occasion where they had taken the lead, so the players could be forgiven for having surprised looks on their faces as they celebrated.
Boro played their part however, by seemingly not attempting to threaten Sunderland’s goal in any way - despite boasting a frontline of Yakubu and Mark Viduka, with Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink and Massimo Macarone watching from the bench.
There were long periods of pressure for the home side, but zero conversions into chances and just after the hour mark, Sunderland took advantage. A free-kick was awarded just outside of the Boro penalty area, just to the right of the goal and with ease, Julio Arca stroked the ball over the wall and into the net.
2-0 was how it remained and Sunderland had picked up their first win of the current season and the first top-flight away victory since Peter Reid’s side had won at Leeds United back in August 2002 - McCarthy was naturally delighted to get maximum points:
We’ve got the monkey off our back. Tim Carter said: ‘It’s not a monkey, it’s Planet of the Apes’ - it’s a nice feeling to come in and explain how we’ve won. We have played well in the Premiership and haven’t won - the important part today was learning how to win. Hopefully that will give us confidence. There has been self-belief but the longer it gets without a win, it can be demoralising.
The win at the Riverside was only one of three recorded in a season that resulted in a total of 15 points - but we are grateful to Derby County, who could well be just as thankful for Luton Town by the end of this season...
Sunday 25th September, 2005
Middlesbrough 0-2 Sunderland
[Miller 2’, Arca 60’]
Sunderland: Davis, Nosworthy, Breen, Caldwell, Hoyte, Whitehead (Lawrence), Bassila, Miller, Arca, Gray, Elliott (Le Tallac) Substitute not used: Murphy, Collins, Welsh
Middlesbrough: Jones, Xivier, Pogatetz, Boateng, Ehiogu, Southgate, Morrison, Rochemback, Yakubu (Hasselbaink), Viduka, Queudrue Substitutes not used: Knight, Doriva, Parlour, Maccarone