As someone who doesn’t attend a lot of away games, I don’t have as large a selection as some others when it comes to choosing my favourite match. Notable mentions include the high-scoring home wins over Rochdale, Gillingham and Barnsley. The season opener against Charlton would be a popular choice, but I wasn’t there that day. I did get a call from my Dad shortly after the final whistle though. The Stadium of Light was still rocking from Lynden Gooch’s last-minute winner and there was a buzz in the background of the conversation that I hadn’t heard for a long time. Despite the ecstasy of that finale, it seemed far from the perfect performance. The game I’ve gone for represents, in my opinion, the best overall display of the season.
It came in the third game, against Scunthorpe at home which for me announced our arrival in the division. In hindsight, taking four points from two teams who went on to be promoted is nothing to be sniffed at. At the time, it was less encouraging. We’d needed a last-minute winner to edge past a Charlton side so threadbare they couldn’t fill their bench and drawn away to newly-promoted Luton. We’d got points on the board but weren’t blowing teams away in the manner we’d all expected. Having finished fifth the season before, Scunthorpe represented our toughest test thus far. Even though they went on to be relegated, at the start of the season they were among the favourites for promotion.
What should have been a close game on paper turned out to be our most dominant performance all season. From kick off, we dominated possession and knocked the ball around with a confidence that had been missing from home performances for years. What was more, was that we were causing Scunthorpe problems and carving out chances. Once Max Power headed in the opener, there was no going back. Josh Maja continued his impressive start to the season with a second three minutes later. The pick of the goals though, had to be Chris Maguire’s third just before half time. Starting with Power’s inch perfect diagonal ball to Gooch, the American played an incisive one-two with Honeyman to reach the by-line and the drill the ball across the six-yard to Maguire who turned the ball home with the cheekiest of backheels.
It was a move executed and finished with a swagger unseen at the Stadium of Light for years. It sent out a message that this team was not burdened by the failures of the past. There seemed to be no fear of failure. Though chances had been missed with the game goalless, this did not appear to deter anyone; if anything, it seemed to make them sure that the breakthrough was imminent.
The half-time whistle blew and the boos which had customarily greeted it were replaced with a standing ovation. Though our dominance continued in the second half, we were unable to build on the three-goal advantage. The first forty-five shattered any Scunthorpe resistance, and truth, the score line flattered them; on another day, we could have had twice as many. I left the ground thoroughly satisfied for the first time in years, that I had seen a Sunderland team relish playing in front of their own fans and seemingly emboldened by the crowd. Having begun the previous campaign off with a win and a draw before beginning an irreversible decline in form, I then knew that this time around things would be different.
Though since then we’ve seen off better opposition in matches of more gravity this game still stands out. It showed what we were capable of, however difficult we found it to reach these heights again. It is typical that the next two home games saw us draw 1-1 against Oxford United and Fleetwood. Had we demonstrated the ruthlessness and defensive solidity we showed against Scunthorpe in other games, we’d almost certainly have gone up automatically. With a bit of luck, next time around a performance like the one that day won’t be as rare.