A record away following travelled to the JJB Stadium in April 2005 to witness a memorable Sunderland victory. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Encounters between Wigan Athletic and Sunderland have been rare. Since their first match-up, as recent as 1987, the two sides have met just sixteen times. Aside from an infamous 'mudslide' incident, entertainment in those meetings has been relatively thin on the ground, but one game will live long in the memory of Black Cats fans.
The year is 2005. A warm Tuesday evening in the first week of April. Much of the British footballing public has set up camp in front of a television, be it at home or down the local alehouse, ready to witness one of those much-lauded 'great European nights' at Anfield. But whilst the majority of the nation watched a Liverpool side managed by Rafael Benitez dispose of Juventus and march onward to the Champions League semi-finals, a match in West Lancashire took on a significance of its own
For it was on this night that first met second in the newly-named Championship (that's Division 1 to my generation; Division 2 to those of a slighter older generation). Wigan, predominantly known forever and a day as a rugby town, finally had a football team to be proud of. Athletic, having joined the football league merely a few decades earlier, were now within touching distance of the Premier League. Spearheaded by the deadly strike duo of Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, the Latics had topped the table for much of the season, but found themselves displaced in mid-March.
Assuming that top spot was a side that would stay there until the season's end. Sunderland, looking to return to the top tier after play-off heartache the previous year, had surged to a commanding position under Mick McCarthy. Overseeing a side comprised of workmanlike players, albeit with a sprinkle of flair thrown in for good measure, the ex-Republic of Ireland boss had turned around a side that fell out of the Premier League in demoralising fashion two years previously.
Not content with radio coverage, 7,500 (some suggest the figure was closer to 8,000) foolhardy red and white souls made the journey down the M6 into Greater Manchester. Buoyed by seven league wins in a row, this table-top clash would determine whether or not the Wearsiders were truly ready to return to the top flight.
Occupying an entire side of the JJB Stadium, the enormous travelling support didn't have to wait long until their loyalty was rewarded. The clock had barely struck four minutes when Marcus Stewart, a shining star since the club's demotion in 2003, put Sunderland ahead. On the touchline and in the stands, the home side were furious. Liam Lawrence, Sunderland right-winger and future pornographic film star, ran the ball dangerously close to the touchline, and many believed a Wigan thrown-in was forthcoming. But, heeding the expletive-laden advice of his manager to “F**king get on with it!”, Lawrence continued on, whipping a ball into the area that Stewart was on hand to dispatch past John Filan in the Wigan net.
Cue pandemonium in the stands. Shirts left backs, female stewards were adorned with affection and grown men hugged one another in a vigourous manner that suggested their wives may have reason to question the veracity of their marriages. A Sunderland away game: you can't beat it.
And nor could Wigan beat their visitors. Content with their early goal, McCarthy's side sat back and prepared themselves for an onslaught from Messrs. Ellington and Roberts. It never came. In goal, Thomas Myhre was scarcely troubled, protected brilliantly by Gary Breen and Steven Caldwell. 1-0 was how it would stay and, save for a tricky two-game spell against Reading and Ipswich Town, the Black Cats cantered to the Championship.
Wigan, despite their downturn in form, would eventually join Sunderland in the automatic promotion spots. The Latics would go on to have a fantastic first season in the top flight, defying all doubters, and have stayed there ever since. Sunderland, meanwhile, scraped to a miserly fifteen points, and went down once more in a shroud of embarrassment.
Now the two teams find themselves engaged in an altogether different battle. If Wigan lose on Saturday, their six-year stay in the Premier League could be nearing its end. By the same token, if Sunderland succumb to a fifth successive home defeat, they too could return to English football's second tier.
Whatever the result this weekend, 7500 or so fans will always be able to look fondly upon that crucial night in April 2005.
To discuss more great Sunderland memories, or depress yourself with their current travails, get in touch with me on Twitter @christoph_21