In March 2003, Mick McCarthy took over a sinking ship when he replaced Howard Wilkinson, who in turn had taken over from Peter Reid during the same season.
It was the year that saw Reid’s side break up. So many of the players that had taken us to successive seventh-place finishes in the Premier League were now gone and the club’s finances weren’t great.
In the first season down in the Championship, McCarthy was left with a lot of players still on big wages who weren’t attracting offers and were lukewarm at best about remaining at the club.
Despite all of this, we missed out in the semi-finals of the playoffs to Crystal Palace (who went on to be promoted), while also reaching an FA Cup semi-final that ended in disappointment against Millwall.
With players including Joachim Björklund, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb moving out of the club after that first season outside of the top flight, McCarthy was able to bring in a host of fresh young players such as Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Elliott, all for next to nothing in comparison to what the club had been spending on players in previous years.
McCarthy’s side went on to win the title with this new squad, despite most of the players stepping up to that level for the first time.
Ahead of the challenge of the Barclays Premier League, there was virtually no money to strengthen the squad to a level that would allow us to compete. On the opening day, during a 3-1 home defeat to Charlton Athletic, Kelvin Davis, Tommy Miller, Andy Gray, Jon Stead and Nyron Nosworthy all made their debuts.
It took seven league games to claim a victory and another fifteen to claim our second.
We were rooted to the bottom of the table and by the time Martin Jol’s Spurs side arrived at the Stadium of Light on this day in 2006, the Lads were nine points adrift of nineteenth-placed Portsmouth and eighteen points from safety.
To add to the problems, comments from McCarthy had started a war of words between himself and chairman Bob Murray, with the former Republic of Ireland manager kicking things off:
There was a view taken that of course we wanted to stay up and do well but if we didn’t, the group of players here will stay here and be a force to be reckoned with in the Championship.
We have lacked experience but if we had gone out and got experienced players on big salaries, we might have had a real problem if we had gone down.
If it turns out that we’re not good enough and we go down, this team stays together unless any decide they don’t want to.
I was very angry to read the comments at the weekend, which are blatantly untrue and insulting. We did not go up into the Premier League just to make up the numbers or with a plan to come back down - that’s a ludicrous suggestion.
We did expect it to be a difficult and hard first season back, as Wigan and West Ham did, but we did not expect to be in the position we are today and none of us are happy about that. The policy was to acquire players to secure our position in the Premier League and certainly not for a subsequent season in the Championship.
The board did not dictate the number of players to buy or which targets to pursue. All our player contracts, like the majority of clubs now, are much more performance-related and also reflect our status - wherever we finish in the league - but that’s just sound business.
The facts are that we finished last season twenty one points ahead of West Ham and seven points ahead of Wigan.
In the summer, we invested at least as much as both Wigan and West Ham and expected to be in there scrapping to the end of the season with the goal of retaining our Premier League status, so we could consolidate further in our second season.
Wigan and West Ham have been able to invest again in the January window, as we would have done had we been in the same position with the comfort of knowing we too had all but secured our league status. Unfortunately, the performances and results dictated otherwise.
At our game against West Brom, I was talking to their chairman and he confirmed that despite them being in their second successive season in the Premier League, our wage bill is higher than theirs, so it’s not a case of us lacking ambition, not being prepared to pay Premier League wages or not wanting to remain in the top flight.
Spurs started the afternoon in the top four and it was no surprise when Robbie Keane converted a Jermain Defoe cross around five minutes before half time to put the away side ahead going into the break.
Both sides had chances in the second half and with fifteen minutes remaining, McCarthy made a significant change when he replaced Liam Lawrence with debutant Daryl Murphy.
Five minutes later, Murphy picked up a yellow card, but in injury time his real moment came when he muscled his way through and drilled a shot under Paul Robinson to salvage a point for the Lads.
It was one of only fifteen that we put on the board that season.
Sunday 12 February 2006
Barclays Premier League
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 1 (Murphy 89’)
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Keane 38’)
Sunderland: Davis, Nosworthy, Breen; Collins, Hoyte, Lawrence (Daryl Murphy 75’); Bassila (Leadbitter 45’), Miller, Arca; Kyle, Stead (Le Tallec 90’)
Subs Not Used: Alnwick, Woods
Tottenham Hotspur: Robinson, Stalteri, Lee; Jenas, Dawson, King; Lennon (Danny Murphy 86’), Carrick, Keane (Huddlestone 70’); Defoe, Davids (Mido 63’)
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Gardner