Sunderland AFC Throwback – When five-star Sunderland ended their season in style at Luton

Richard Easterbrook goes back to 2007 to recall a memorable encounter at Kenilworth Road

Sixteen years ago, Sunderland won the Championship after demolishing Luton Town 5-0 at Kenilworth Road.

Tonight, the new generation of Black Cats head to the same location – the dream of promotion the same as it was in 2007, but the circumstances around it markedly different. Win or draw tonight and Sunderland will be at Wembley, with one shot at promotion to the Premier League.

In 2007, victory at Luton’s famous old ground completed an incredible resurgence under Roy Keane. Earlier in the season, promotion seemed like a pipe dream as Sunderland failed to shake off the form that had seen them plummet out of the Premier League with a then record points total of 15.

They were rock bottom after four games, and then were dumped out of the League Cup at the hands of Bury, during which Arnau Rieira was dismissed. Having suffered such humiliation in being relegated so meekly in the first place, the opening weeks of 2006-07 just felt like kick after kick after kick.

The Drumaville consortium, headed up by Niall Quinn, brought a wave of optimism that summer, but our former striker’s decision to install himself as manager – albeit in a caretaker capacity – wasn’t one of his better calls. His efforts in bringing Roy Keane to the club, however, very much was.

At the time, the idea of a recently-retired Keane choosing Sunderland, of all places, to kick-start his managerial career felt more like a wind-up. Why would he come here? Didn’t he hate Quinn anyway?

To Sunderland’s benefit, they had patched things up post-Saipan 2002 – they managed to find some common ground, and the hard work of turning Sunderland from laughing stock to serious contenders began in earnest.

The rebuild

As Keane and Quinn worked quickly, and effectively, adding the likes of Graham Kavanagh, Liam Miller and Stan Varga on a frenetic August transfer deadline day, the loan signings of Jonny Evans and Danny Simpson from Manchester United gave Keane’s squad some serious quality.

The results almost instantly turned around, with famous victories at Derby, Leeds, Hull City, and Southampton being matched by a crucial win at home to Burnley later on in the season.

With promotion secured by the time Keane’s men travelled to Kenilworth Road, a win would be enough to take the championship at the expense of Birmingham City.

The Hatters, helmed by Kevin Blackwell – the third manager in the Luton dugout that season following Mike Newell’s departure in the March and a brief caretaker stint from Brian Stein – were already relegated ahead of the season’s final game, yet still finished above Leeds United who had been deducted ten points after slipping into administration.

Sunderland were in no mood to show any mercy to Luton, though, and were 2-0 up by the sixth minute courtesy of Anthony Stokes and Daryl Murphy.

It was a lead the Black Cats would take into the break, and one that was extended straight after the restart when Murphy grabbed a second.

Ross Wallace made it four late on, and the champagne corks were popping in the Sunderland dugout – almost certainly metaphorically – when David Connolly made it five four minutes from time.

Cue some lovely celebrations, including Nyron Nosworthy strutting around the Kenilworth Road pitch wearing a fedora, bringing the Bob Stokoe look kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The one sour note that day was that Sunderland would not receive the Championship trophy due to Football League red tape – instead, they had to settle for a modest celebration at Seaham Hall since Keane had refused to hold a trophy parade, in very Roy Keane fashion.

Luton’s wilderness years

It would be 11 years before the two sides would meet again. While Sunderland enjoyed a decade of top-flight football, the Hatters dropped into League One, and by November had entered administration, bringing with it the mandatory 10-point deduction. That wouldn’t have kept them up anyway, and so they finished bottom of the table, with the prospect of playing League Two football the following campaign.

If I said that their resurgence would start here, then I’d be lying. In fact, it got worse. Much worse. Having entered administration the season before, the Hatters were deducted a further 10 points for misconduct, then another 20 for not exiting administration in the correct way.

That ensured Luton would begin 08-09 with -30 points, giving them a mountain to climb. As it turned out, they finished that season bottom of the Football League with 26 points – without the deduction they’d have been comfortably mid-table.

The incredibly harsh punishment set the wheels in motion for Luton to begin what would be a five-year exile from the Football League, brought to an end when the Hatters finally won promotion from the Conference National under John Still in 2014.

At the end of the 2013-14 season, Sunderland and Luton were four divisions apart. But just four years later, they were in the same league. And now, 16 long years on, they both stand a chance of earning promotion to the top flight.

A new hope

The level of expectation for Sunderland going into both games at Kenilworth Road, in 2007 and 2023, is markedly different.

Regardless of the season that had gone before and the shocking start to 06-07, there was a sense that winning the Championship that year, although commendable, was simply a return to their rightful place.

And so that proved – as Sunderland would go on to spend a decade in the top flight, reaching a cup final and beating Newcastle United six times in a row.

But as Sunderland prepare themselves for Tuesday night’s game, four years in League One has done a fine job of managing supporters’ expectations on Wearside.

Many viewed the first season back in the second tier as being one of consolidation. If not consolidation, an exercise in finding one’s feet, setting the foundations to have a nibble at the Premier League next year.

What has transpired surprised everyone. Even the most optimistic Sunderland supporter could not have predicted we would finish sixth in our first season back.

This absence of expectation has given way to rampant hope. It has created a fearlessness among the fanbase. Tony Mowbray’s players go into each game believing they can win, and that conviction has transmitted to the supporters.

The gap between 2007’s end of season shakeout in Luton and tonight’s crucial play-off second leg is poignant for another, somewhat more personal reason.

Two weeks after Sunderland’s win, my daughter was born. And now, 16 years later, she is my trusty sidekick, also a season ticket holder, who has a remarkable habit of calming my blind rage at another terrible refereeing decision by simply offering me some chocolate; and the one who will be by my side at Wembley should we get through tonight’s encounter unscathed.

In 2007, our season came to an end at Kenilworth Road. But now, in a campaign where hope has eclipsed expectation, I pray that this season does not end there too.