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Oct 10, 2008

On that day: Sgt Wilko to the rescue

Newcastle United do not hold the monopoly on being a crisis club in the North East of England. Sworn rivals Sunderland have suffered their fair share of crises, always enjoyed by their rivals by the River Tyne.

The Toon Army found itself rocking in the aisles on October 10, 2002 when Sunderland, 17th in the Premiership turned to Howard Wilkinson to be the man to replace sacked manager Peter Reid.

The incredulous reaction to the appointment was akin to that when Joe Kinnear took over the reins at Newcastle earlier this month. Like Kinnear, Wilkinson was a man out of time, a throwback to a different age, a reminder of a time when the Premier League did not even exist.

Wilkinson, as now, was remembered as the last English manager to win England's top division, the old First Division with Leeds United in 1992. Unfortunately for Wilkinson he was better remembered by many football fans as the man who sold Eric Cantona to Manchester United for £1.2m, the boss whose playing style won few friends in the later years of his time at Leeds and, most recently, as Technical Director at the FA. This was a role that had mystified many and, in the eyes of some, achieved very little.

Reid's eight years at the Stadium of Light had been marked by diminishing returns. Two promotions and a hugely successful 2000/01 in which Sunderland had finished seventh had been followed by the near-disaster of 2001/02. Only 28 goals in 38 matches had been scored and relegation only narrowly escaped. Season 2002/03 had followed a similar pattern despite the record signing of Tore Andre Flo from Sunderland. Reid's simple approach had ceased to be effective and he was shown the door at the beginning of October. Popular until things started to go against him, Reid had left a legacy of relative success on Wearside.

In looking for a successor chairman Bob Murray turned to a friend for advice on who to replace Reid. That friend was Howard Wilkinson, still languishing at the FA where he had been accused of undermining Kevin Keegan and then sidelined by the arrival of Sven Goran Eriksson as national coach. His two games as caretaker England boss had been winless and appointing himself as U21 boss had been a disaster, the team losing three out of six games.

Wilkinson fancied getting back into the day-to-day running of a football club and Murray's call gave him his chance. He urged his friend to give him the opportunity to get back into club management. Against most observers' better judgement, Murray agreed.

Wilkinson was back after six years out of the league and those days of success at Sheffield Wednesday and Elland Road were further away still. Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this, 59-year-old 'Sgt Wilko', as he was affectionately known at Leeds, chose a younger man as his running mate. Steve Cotterill possessed a growing reputation, having served a five-year apprenticeship at Cheltenham Town, who he had taken first into the Football League, then into the Second Division and in 2001/02, the unchartered territory of the FA Cup 5th Round. Cotterill had recently taken control of Stoke City but felt that being lieutenant to Wilkinson gave him a better chance at the big time.

The outline plan was for the master to learn from the apprentice and eventually succeed him. Cotterill never got that chance. And never has since, so disastrous was his partnership with Wilkinson. The Howard and Steve show would last just twenty games, though Sunderland fans would never forget their like.

The big arrival was met with dismay. As Chris Waddle, a Rokerite of long-standing despite making his name at Newcastle, predicted "it is going to be hard work from day one".

Fans had expected a man flushed with a high profile like David O'Leary, recently ousted as Leeds self-destructed. Mick McCarthy's stock was high after Ireland's exploits at the 2002 World Cup. Martin O'Neill, then at Celtic, was another name linked. Wilkinson was much older than such names and as Gary Speed, one of his players at Leeds, said: "He wasn't sexy."

Wilkinson could hardly be regarded as sexy, with a droning voice and stiff deportment more befitting of an ageing geography teacher than a leader of footballing men. His trademark style of play was regarded as even more prehistoric than Reid's ailing long-ball tactics. There were strong memories of the latter days at Leeds where a glut of central defenders had been employed across his team.

The South Yorkshireman had long had a reputation as a route-one merchant, despite the supremely talented midfield quartet of Batty, McAllister, Speed and Strachan that had brought succcess at Leeds. After a Reid masterplan built on similar foundations had faltered, few fans wanted more of the same.

The first game of the new regime, nine days later against West Ham, was a portent of things to come. Relegation-bound West Ham's greater craft saw off a Sunderland team who lacked any confidence in front of goal. The natives were listless with Hammers boss Glenn Roeder surprised at "how quiet the crowd were". From an inauspicious start, things did not get much better. Wilkinson was granted just five months, his team winning just two games of twenty joyless league matches.

On March 11, Wilkinson was given his cards, the friendship with Bob Murray tarnished perhaps forever as the stadium became ever emptier. Cotterill followed his mentor into the wilderness with Sunderland rock bottom and heading for the Championship. Wilkinson's return to football management was all but finished.

It did not get better for Sunderland either. Successor Mick McCarthy did not win another game that season, the Wearsiders ending the season on 19 points, the worst final points total since Stoke City's in 1985. The last league win had come way back in December.

For Newcastle fans, riding high under Bobby Robson and, by the end of the season, finding themselves in the Champions League, this was priceless entertainment. It would take a long while to right the ship at Sunderland. By that time however, matters at Newcastle were beginning to take on their own chaotic and comedic edge. It is perhaps now Sunderland's turn to crow.

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