Sunderland fans knew only too well the extent of the problems the club faced during their hugely depressing 2005-06 season.
The squad didn’t want for effort, but a shortage of quality caught the side out time and time again, with mistakes at the back being routinely punished and a lack of cutting edge in front of goal undoing a lot of the hard work in between the two boxes.
Nuetral viewers that had settled down at teatime on this day to watch the Lads take on West Bromwich Albion however may have been forgiven for wondering exactly why results had been as bad as they were.
At first glance the team didn’t seem all that different to a lot of the other also-rans in the bottom half of the Premiership table, and based on the evidence they were about to see, Sunderland at least had enough about them to keep in touch.
That they ended up going down with a then-record low points tally may have surprised the more casual watcher therefore, as it was rare that the Lads would ever be put to the sword or were found totally out of their depth. Regulars knew though that all it took would be a slight error or slip and the game would be up – confidence was rock bottom, and with momentum against them it was hard to keep getting back up off the canvas.
The squad had been tipped by some to struggle from the off anyway, and even with the best will in the world it was proving impossible to stop things snowballing.
A couple of lucky breaks earlier in the season may have improved matters, but the first game with the Baggies back in September had summed things up well; Sunderland had looked set to record a morale boosting first win of the season only to drop two points at the death when Albion snatched a gut punching equaliser.
It would be months before they came anywhere near as close to earning three points at the Stadium of Light, with the Lads only fairing marginally better on the road. Maybe they were just saving their best for when they were in front of the live TV cameras – when a maiden league victory was notched at Middlesbrough in their next topflight fixture it had been shown on Sky Sports, and the Hawthorns return clash with West Brom was also broadcast.
As always, Mick McCarthy’s team battled hard throughout but the difference in the Midlands was that for once they did get a bit of good fortune. In a closely fought affair it looked like one strike would settle it, and it fell for Sunderland when an Anthony Le Tallec shot that looked to be going wide deflected off Steve Watson and into the goal. As well as a touch of luck there was also some controversy over the move, with Liam Lawrence being accused of fouling former Wearside loanee Darren Carter during the build-up.
Conversely, when the hosts saw a Ronnie Wallwork effort in the first half ricochet off teammate Junichi Inamoto only to be saved smartly by Kelvin Davis, the travelling red and white army may have tentatively hoped that this was about to be their day for once. Indeed, when Watson was then presented with a golden opportunity and inexplicably passed it to Nathan Ellington instead, seeing the chance go begging, Lads fans watching in the stands and via screens back home really did start to wonder.
The team also sensed that something was there for them, and whilst the match often lacked quality Sunderland did want to make a go of it. A Lawrence cross into the box shortly after half time was nearly converted by Julio Arca, and once they’d nudged ahead Sunderland dug in to confirm the win. It was a welcome result and raised spirits for a few days, but there was to be no follow up – escaping the drop zone became increasingly unlikely as the defeats piled up, and this proved to be the last victory achieved under McCarthy.
Saturday 21 January 2006
West Bromwich Albion 0
Sunderland 1 (Watson own goal 72’)
Sunderland: Davis; Hoyte, Caldwell, Breen, Collins; Lawrence (Nosworthy 90’), Miller, Whitehead, Arca; Le Tallec (Bassila 76’), Stead (Gray 86). Unused: Alnwick, Murphy.
The Hawthorns, attendance 26,464