13 May ~ The last time Manchester City won the league, they were grateful to Sunderland for a victory over Manchester United on the final day of the season. On May 11, 1968, City topped the division on goal average only, and while Joe Mercer's side travelled to Newcastle, United hosted Sunderland at home. Many believed that United had the easier game – both the Football League trophy and the Match of the Day cameras were at Old Trafford. But Sunderland beat United 2-1 and City made the Championship certain by winning 4-3 at Newcastle. Today, Sunderland once again play United with the title in the balance.
From the way our season has petered out since March, I cannot see Sunderland easing any City nerves this time around. I'm not complaining too much. When Steve Bruce was sacked at the end of November, many Sunderland supporters were bracing themselves for the familiar fug of a relegation battle. Then came Martin O'Neill's entrance and amazing start. From two wins in 13 league games under Bruce, Sunderland won seven of O'Neill's first 13. Messiahs are the sole preserve of another football club in the north-east, but O'Neill has had a tremendous effect on the Black Cats' season.
There was also an FA Cup run, reaching the last eight by negotiating tricky ties against Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Peterborough. But it was with defeat to perennial bogey team Everton in a quarter-final replay that the season lost its momentum.
There had been warning signs. When Sunderland were good they were excellent. We scored a succession of high-quality goals, took four points off Manchester City and won games against other mid-table teams – like Liverpool and Norwich – quite comfortably.
But on bad days we were terrible. In going down 2-0 at Ewood Park and losing 4-0 to West Brom, Sunderland looked uninterested and devoid of ideas. This was particularly odd as these games appeared suddenly and without warning, and were always followed by much improved performances.
Then came the Everton quarter-final. After doing well to draw at Goodison Park, Sunderland were made favourites for the return fixture at the end of March. The team played as if they were already in the semi-finals and Everton didn't have to work too hard for a 2-0 victory.
Since then we haven't won. Everton beat us again, 4-0 for good measure, in the second week of April. The good performances, such as the exceptional and unfortunate 3-3 draw at Eastlands, are now the exception rather than the rule.
While Sunderland fans are still hugely positive about the future, all sorts of theories abound for this loss of form. It may be that O'Neill had motivated average players into overachieving or that there isn't really a Plan B when things start to unravel. Maybe the disappointment of the Cup defeat struck a heavy psychological blow? Could it be a classic case of players relaxing once relegation is avoided?
Whatever the reasons for these tepid few months, I'm very grateful to O'Neill for saving our season but very glad to see the end of it. So, whatever happens with the Premier League title later, Manchester City supporters shouldn't look to Sunderland for help if they find themselves in trouble against QPR. Ed Upright