If you are superstitious Halloween is no night for ill omens, from a Sunderland perspective all the signs were there that the 2006 edition of All Hallow’s Eve was not going to be a good one for the Wearsiders with magpies doing damage on the pitch in more ways than one. Whether the powers of malicious spiritual forces or not, it would be Cardiff City who prospered that night, tricking and treating their travelling supporters to a rare win in the northeast and the only time the Bluebirds have managed to win at the Stadium of Light.
Cardiff, then managed by Dave Jones, were surprise leaders of the Championship, following a barnstorming start to the season. Sunderland, on the other hand, were struggling to adapt to life in the second tier following relegation from the Premier League. They had already sacked Niall Quinn and his successor Roy Keane was having a hard time imposing his methods on a wayward squad.
Michael Chopra was the Cardiff hero that night, his two close range efforts – typical of the arch poacher he was back then – giving the Bluebirds a 2-1 victory. As an ex-Newcastle player and supporter it was no doubt a particular pleasure to score in Sunderland’s backyard.
If that wasn’t enough of a bad omen for the home support, the game was noticeable for two pitch invaders. Before the match, as fans drifted in to the stadium, two magpies pecked away at the goalmouth in front of the Sunderland end. During the match, they even graced the crossbar when the action was at a distance. How does the children’s rhyme go: “one for sorrow, two for joy”? The joy was all Cardiff and Chopra’s that night.
Cardiff travelled to Sunderland as established league leaders, having collected 30 points from the opening 14 games and with just two defeats to their name. Sunderland, in contrast, were well off the pace. They lost their first 4 league fixtures of the season, prompting them to remove Niall Quinn as boss and install Roy Keane as his replacement; even under the legendary former Manchester United enforcer’s stewardship the Mackems had suffered a further 3 losses in 9 games and were languishing in the bottom half of the table.
The early success of the Bluebirds in the 2006/7 was a big surprise. This was Dave Jones’ second full season in charge in the Welsh capital and he had rebuilt the Cardiff squad in the summer of 2006, instead recruiting young but cheap players with something to prove, rather than the seasoned professionals he used to stabilise the club in his first season.
Among those recruited were Kevin McNaughton (free), Stephen McPhail (free) and Roger Johnson (£275,000), as well as Michael Chopra for a fee of £500,000. Little known names at the time, they would all go on to become mainstays of the Cardiff side for years to come, making a total of 705 league appearances between them.
However, the main headlines that summer were the sale of promising forward Cameron Jerome to Birmingham City for £3 million and the Bluebirds’ failure to acquire the permanent transfer of the previous season’s player of the year, Jason Koumas. With what was considered to be uninspiring transfer business, Cardiff were not expected to improve much on their 11th placed finish in 2005/6, let alone challenge for promotion.
City flew out of the traps, recording 4 wins and 1 draw from their first five league games, the most eye-catching result being the 2-0 win over Steve Bruce’s expensively assembled Birmingham City outfit – Cameron Jerome included – at a packed Ninian Park. Cardiff maintained their impressive form through September, collecting a further 10 points from five matches (although they suffered their first defeat of the season at Preston), including a 4-0 demolition of Wolves. October showed no respite in Cardiff’s charge, a further 7 points taken from 4 matches prior to the trip to Sunderland, and at one stage the Bluebirds led the table by six points.
Chopra was very much the star attraction, his eight goals before the Sunderland fixture suggesting Jones had pulled off a very shrewd move in the transfer market. So scintillating were Chopra’s performances in the attacking third, the loss of Jerome was barely felt. The ex-Newcastle trainee profited from the work rate of target man Steven Thompson and thrived on the service provided out wide by Paul Parry and Joe Ledley. While not as rapid-fire quick as Jerome, Chopra had composure and a natural finisher’s instinct the former never possessed.
Despite leading the table, Dave Jones’ side went into the game without a win in two matches. A second league defeat was suffered at Norwich, while an injury time goal had denied the Bluebirds a home victory against Derby County in the following game. If these setbacks had affected the confidence of the players, it did not show that night on Wearside as Cardiff started strongly and Chopra’s first goal came in the 4th minute.
After build-up play in midfield, the ball was spread wide to Parry on the right flank. He cut on to his left foot and whipped the ball into Chopra. Non-existent marking by the home defence meant the striker had time to control the ball eight yards and pick his spot past the goalkeeper. Sunderland did hit back through an excellent Chris Brown header in the 10th minute, but before the break Cardiff got their winner when Chopra pounced again on a Parry cross to score inside the six yard box.
Chopra made the most of the celebrations, understandable given the context. It was also the second time that calendar year Chopra had haunted the Black Cats. His arrival as a substitute in the previous season’s Tyne-Wear derby at the Stadium of Light saw Chopra equalise 15 seconds after his arrival on the field and inspire Newcastle to a 4-1 win.
Unfortunately, the Sunderland win would prove the high point of Cardiff’s season. The next game saw the Bluebirds crash to a 3-1 defeat at Colchester United and this began a run in which Dave Jones’ side would win just one of thirteen league matches, failing to score in eight of those fixtures. There was a brief rally when Cardiff won six out of nine games in late winter (following the signing of Peter Whittingham) but the Bluebirds endured a miserable spring, failing to win any of their final nine league matches and collected just two points.
A season that had promised so much to begin with ended with the Bluebirds finishing 13th and eleven points off a play-off place. In total contrast, Sunderland turned their season around after the home loss to Cardiff, losing just 4 of their remaining 31 league games, Roy Keane’s side finished the season as champions. In a further twist of fate, Chopra transferred from Cardiff to Sunderland in the summer of 2007 for £5 million having scored 22 league goals for the Bluebirds that season.