OK, so we got relegated and we all knew it was coming from the moment Moyes gave up the fight on day one. But let’s not all be depressed and downbeat. We are Sunderland after all and our love for the club is not based on success, otherwise we’d all be sectioned, because let’s face it there’s been very little of it over the years!
So, while wondering what I should pen for this first issue back in the Championship, I thought I’d be positive and chose my favourite ten times from the last ten seasons in the Premier League…
10: LAST MINUTE WINNERS
Roy Keane was ultimately flawed in his man-management of modern footballers, but the ‘never-say-die’ attitude he instilled on the team was crucial to survival on our return to the Premier League. Michael Chopra’s last minute winner on the opening day against Spurs brought much needed relief after the 19 and 15 point humiliations and set the tone for things to come, such as Daryl Murphy’s last minute header to beat Boro and confirm safety, late winners against Derby and Villa, and Andy Reid’s unforgettable 97th minute winner at home to West Ham.
9: PARTY WITH MARTY
Yes, it ended badly; yes, O’Neill was a massive disappointment, and yes, that Norwich game was horrific. That first period, though, from December to March, was genuinely exciting, including the cup run, memorable wins over Blackburn, Liverpool and Man City (more on that later) and exciting, counter-attacking football. Heading into April that season we looked strong contenders to finish above Liverpool in the top 8. How we fell away from that to the relegation battle and eye-wateringly negative performances we churned in the following season is one of the great disappointments from the last decade.
8: SUNDERLAND 3-1 TOTTENHAM
A Stadium of Light classic that had everything. Darren Bent (back when we still loved him) taunting Spurs fans, scoring twice but also missing two penalties. Anton Ferdinand celebrating like Michael Jackson, only to realise his goal had been disallowed. Peter Crouch pulling one back to set up a tense end to the game, before Bolo’s superb volley sealed it late on. A brilliant victory against a very good Spurs team and one of the best performances of the last decade.
7: TOP 6 IN JANUARY 2011
Steve Bruce undid a lot of his good work here in his final transfer window and destroyed any goodwill with his bitter and outlandish claims after he left, but he did amass a pretty decent side in his first 18 months, with wins over Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool via a beach ball and Man City. With less than 10 minutes remaining away at Stoke in early February, Sunderland led 2-1 and were on course to reach 40 points with 14 games to spare. In true Sunderland style we managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, beginning a run of 1 point from 9 games.
A week earlier though, a 2-1 win at Blackpool in our first game sans Darren Bent consolidated our position in sixth, where we’d stayed for much of the previous month. Yes, we had a high number of loan players who would inevitably return to their clubs, but it’s easy to forget how strong a position we were in at the turn of that year, boasting a front three of Bent, Gyan and Welbeck, two good keepers, a solid defence and the likes of Malbranque, Zenden and Henderson in midfield. Another ‘what could have been’ moment had we held on to Bent and not completely lost the plot.
6: SUNDERLAND 1-0 MAN CITY
Not once, not twice, but 4 times in succession. For individual moments of drama, Ji Dong Won's last minute winner is up there amongst the best. Going into the game with injuries in only the fifth game with Martin O'Neill in charge, facing the champions elect with hundreds of millions of poundsworth of talent including Aguero on the bench. Man City hitting the bar deep into stoppage time after battering us for 90 minutes, Seb Larsson clearing the ball up to Ji then collapsing, Martin Tyler's dramatic commentary and of course Ji rounding Joe Hart before slotting home with 93:56 on the clock. Darren Bent won it in the 94th minute 18 months earlier, too, whilst Johnson on Boxing Day 2012 and Bardsley in November 2013 repeated the score line twice more. If only we'd held on again in March 2014.
5: CHELSEA 0-3 SUNDERLAND
We’ve upset the odds to beat the bigger clubs on occasion before, but have we done it as spectacularly and dominantly as this? 3-0 away at the reigning champions who were running away with the league again and undefeated at home. Nedum Onuoha unexpectedly rocked up in attack, danced his way through the Chelsea defence and slotted home to give us the lead on the stroke of half time. Bolo Zenden dad-danced after Gyan doubled the lead and Danny Welbeck capitalised on Ashley Cole’s back pass to round it off. To put this into context, we’d lost 7-2 and 5-0 in our previous two trips to Stamford Bridge. This was reward to the loyal lads and lasses who had followed us through thick and thin.
4: BEATING CHELSEA AND EVERTON TO SECURE SURVIVAL
It’s hard to look back knowing now what was to come shortly after, but it really did seem as though we were on the verge of something special after two of the most incredible games played at the SOL.For weeks we had been locked in a three-way battle for survival with Newcastle and Norwich, gradually improving performances and results without putting together a run of wins to pull clear. The Chelsea game was a tense, topsy-turvy battle, with the Mags unable to beat whipping boys Villa but the lads needing to win for it to have any significance. Twice Chelsea took the lead, twice we equalised, through a Khazri thunderbolt and Borini drive, before Defoe blew the proverbial roof off the stadium to win it. Everton was the icing on the cake. Van Aanholt calmed the nerves before a Kone double emphatically secured survival and condemned our friends up the road to relegation, sparking elation in the stands and Hulk Hogan impersonations from Big Sam.
3: THE GREAT ESCAPE
Cut well adrift at the bottom with five games to go and trips to Chelsea and Man United to come, it was with reluctant acceptance that a mate and I began to plan our Championship away trips to the likes of Blackpool and Leeds over a pint on Good Friday in 2014. In typical Sunderland fashion, we’d actually played quite well a couple of days earlier at Man City but undone all of the good work in the last minute; a tame shot spilling through Vito Mannone’s hands to deny a much needed win. Within 12 minutes the following day at Stamford Bridge we were behind again. Poyet had already thrown in the towel weeks earlier, famously proclaiming that we’d need a miracle to survive. In the crowd, a young fan held a banner with the message “Miracles Do Happen Gus.” She was right. For four games Connor Wickham morphed into Pele, inspiring the lads to a superb comeback at Chelsea, a 4-0 thrashing of Cardiff and remarkable victory at Old Trafford. West Brom were easily dispatched in the penultimate game to complete the miraculous comeback. Within ten months Poyet was gone and the miracle ultimately failed to inspire us to anything more than further relegation battles and end of season escapology, but the victories over Chelsea and Man United were as exciting as any in my lifetime.
2: 6 IN A ROW
There was once a time in the distant past that Newcastle regularly beat Sunderland. There were times when we battled but couldn’t get over the line – Mignolet saving a late penalty only to concede in stoppage time, for example. Other times we froze and underperformed. Richardson’s rocket of a free kick gave us rare cause for celebration in a passionate and fiery derby in 2008, but otherwise it seemed that, for whatever reason, the Mags had some kind of mental hold over us. It seemed, after Halloween 2010, that we’d never have our day in the sun. That they still try to cling on to that match seven years ago makes our recent successes even sweeter, six brilliant wins in a row and nine undefeated games later.
The first, and arguably my pick of the bunch, had everything. Di Canio slapping Pardew. Taking the lead through Sess, Johnson’s pearler and Vaughan’s stunner to rub salt into the wounds. Pardew smugly celebrating Cisse’s goal, only to then realise it had been disallowed. It was the wrong decision, but even better. Rioting, trashing the city and a Mag punching a horse. An actual horse!
Borini smashed in a late winner against the odds for our first win of the following season, before laughing in the face of Tim Krul to open the scoring with a cool penalty in a completely one-sided 3-0 demolition months later. Johnson gave us the perfect Christmas present and ruined theirs with the final kick of the game in December 2014, is there a better feeling in football than a last-minute winner against your fiercest rivals? With both teams battling relegation five months later, the return derby was billed as the biggest for years, and Defoe volleyed home an absolute beauty on the stroke of half time to make it five in a row.
It’s a shame, though, that we were to concede defeat in the inaugural ‘Possession Cup’ the following season, losing by 10 corners to 1. If only we’d had more first half shots on target I might have been able to celebrate as Johnson, Billy Jones and Fletcher made it six…
1: THE CAPITAL ONE CUP RUN
To support Sunderland, you have to accept a life of brief and sporadic highs, lots of lows, frustration and humiliation. Wembley was the last thing on my mind at 2-0 down to MK Dons in the 2nd round, or as we propped up the table succumbing to defeat after defeat in the opening half of the season, but it’s the lows that make the highs even sweeter. For individual moments, I’m not sure anything has or will surpass the feeling of elation when Vito Mannone saved Rafael’s penalty, after the most bizarre shoot out and the short-lived joy of Bardsley’s goal and comedown from Hernandez pegging us back a minute later.
I’m not sure anything will surpass the feeling of pride, either, walking down Wembley Way before the game, beer in hand, surrounded by thousands of excited fans in awe at seeing Sunderland as the headline act at Wembley in a major final. I’m not ashamed to admit I felt very emotional at half time, but of course, it wasn’t to be. Man City beat us to win the cup, but leaving Wembley I didn’t feel a loser. For Man City, this was just another trophy and another trip to the capital after several Wembley appearances in the last 3-4 years. For me, it was the best weekend of my footballing life. You still won’t convince me that Touré meant that, either.