In recent years the 31st of January have brought little more than mediocre temporary additions to our squad with the likes of Tal Ben Haim, Benjani and Calum Davenport joining in what is usually a desolate month for Sunderland fans, even if the ambition was limitless in terms of potential new faces.
Even before the introduction of the winter transfer window, January 31 2001 was the setting for fan’s feelings of unfulfilled promise, and a game against Manchester United was our chance to truly stamp our authority on the Premier League. With Sunderland at dizzy heights, 2 in the Premier League, leaders and current champions Manchester United travelling to the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland fans have seldom seen a team with real ambitions of European football or indeed a team in the top flight that wasn’t propping the table up. In fact the more audacious among us would be thinking of a Champions league spot.
Thirteen points behind United, a title race did not look at all feasible, despite being just a place behind. Even so, the vibe around the Stadium of Light at the time was one of excitement. Sunderland fans had somehow been oblivious to any past aspirations that had turned out to be frivolous, which was the case many a time in the top flight. Those past aspirations however, were usually just survival. This vibrant atmosphere around the club, was somewhat unfamiliar.
Witnessed by a large Sky audience and over 48,000 jammed into the Stadium of Light, Sunderland v Manchester United of January 31st 2001, was perhaps the most fiery encounter in any of our Premier League encounters against any opposition. A nude imposter running on the pitch added a jovial tone to proceedings, but there was nothing jovial about the game.
With controversy a prominent throughout, and the only goal of the game outlined that. Andy Cole blatantly handling the ball before slotting the ball past Sorenson just after the start of the second half. Cole was not yet finished in terms of a centre piece or at least a large component in the un savoury scenes. Him and Alex Rae were both sent for the proverbial early bath for squaring up to each other in the midst of a heated debate. Michael Gray was also sent off for dissent after being furious after Cole’s goal stood. Graham Poll had made himself an enemy on Wearside.
Sunderland did have their chances; Don Hutchinson firing just wide with a free kick and Kevin Phillips' shot likewise just on the wrong side of the post, but the game finished 1-0.
Although Sunderland did finish a very respectable 7th for the second consecutive season( considering we had only been promoted two seasons before), you can’t help but feel if we had won that game, the Premier League’s elite would have really sat up and took notice. Perhaps we would have continued to be a formidable force like we had done up until that date, with the confidence gained. A mid season decline, extinguished any hopes we had of Champions League football. That game on 31st January 2001, could have been season defining. Perhaps even defining where we went the following seasons.