A DECADE ago, Sunderland were third in the table after beating Ipswich Town 4-1, with Europe in their sights and money in the bank.
Of course, then, same as the season before, it was not to be, and a lack of activity in the transfer market that winter proved to be Sunderland's undoing and, as their once successful team
fragmented, their fall from grace culminated in the ignominy of finishing rock bottom of the Premier League with a then record-low points total of 19.
Sunderland and Europe are two words rarely mentioned together. That season, and their FA Cup run in 2003-4, represented the Black Cats' only credible chances of playing on the continent.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge in the last ten years, but, at last, there is growing belief among the squad that European qualification is an achievable target.
One man familiar with European nights is Titus Bramble. Captaining Sunderland for the first time on Saturday in the absence of Lee Cattermole, Bramble
is well aware of the importance of European qualification.
He did it with Ipswich - he played at the Stadium of Light in the 4-1 defeat as a 19-year-old - and, more famously, Newcastle United.
And, after Sunderland's 3-0 win over Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, Bramble is confident that his Black Cats teammates can emulate the former achievements of the Tractor Boys and the Magpies.
Bramble said: "We are back to sixth in the table and confidence is sky high. It was a good performance and now you never know, we have got to be aiming for Europe. I don't think we should show a
lack of confidence because we are a good team, so why not go for Europe? Why shouldn't we?
"I think we are good enough, especially with the way we play at home. You have to set yourself high targets in this game and I don't see anything wrong with that.
"This is a massive club and I think this season we have a great chance of qualifying for Europe . This club deserves to be in Europe because of the size of the club.
"I have been there before and it is so special playing against the best teams in Europe. It is a fantastic feeling and I would love to get back there with Sunderland."
Bramble, starting for the first time since Sunderland beat Chelsea 3-0 in November, helped his side to their tenth clean sheet of the season as goals from Danny Welbeck, Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan saw off a lacklustre Rovers.
Welbeck scored his sixth of the season and Bent broke his goal duck as Sunderland sprinted into a 2-0 lead at the Stadium of Light.
And Gyan made it three on 89 minutes to ensure Sunderland started 2010 in the best possible fashion.
After failing to take advantage of 32 chances against Blackpool on Tuesday, Sunderland's first two efforts against Blackburn Rovers yielded two goals.
Firstly, Welbeck scored on 11 minutes after Ahmed Elmohamady's cross was headed out by Ryan Nelsen, only as far as the on-loan Manchester United man, whose shot was deflected past goalkeeper Mark
Bunn by the New Zealand international.
The common denominator in Sunderland's first-half salvo was Egyptian Elmohamady, who sent in another teasing cross on 19 minutes. This time, Bent rose above Rovers right-back Grant Hanley to glance
a textbook header past Bunn.
Blackburn, looking a completely different side to the one that won 3-1 at West Brom in midweek, had a couple of first-half chances, the pick of the bunch being former Black Cat El Hadj Diouf who
blazed over from three yards on 35 minutes after Morten Gamst Pedersen found the Senegalese forward unmarked.
Welbeck attempted a cheeky lob over Bunn on 37 minutes but his effort bounced on to the crossbar.
While Bent had exorcised a few demons in scoring for the first time since Wolves in November, the England striker still conspired to squander a handful of second-half chances - evidence that Bent
has still not hit top form since his injury earlier in the season.
Bent missed decent chances on 62, 65 and 75 minutes and was eventually replaced by Gyan after taking a knock to his eye socket.
Jordan Henderson came within a lick of paint of making it three for Sunderland when his curling effort, after a good pass from Bolo Zenden, hit the angle between crossbar and post.
But Gyan handed Sunderland all three points when he received Henderson's pass, carried the ball and deftly curled his shot around Brett Emerton and Bunn to seal the game.
Sunderland won it at a canter, and while Bramble and his defence performed well, they were barely tested by Blackburn's misfiring attackers.
Meanwhile, Bramble was honoured to be named captain for the day.
He said: "Captaining Sunderland was a great feeling for me, especially when you consider where I've come from. It was a real honour.
"The fans have been great to me, even when I first signed. That is one of the reasons why I have been able to play some good football because I know they have backed me from day one. I try and let
my football do the talking on the pitch, but I can't thank the fans enough."
Goals: 1-0 (11, Welbeck shot deflected off Nelsen and beyond Bunn);
2-0 (19, Bent header from Elmohamady's teasing cross);
3-0 (89, Gyan curled around Bunn after Henderson released him)
Bookings: Dunn (51, foul); M Diouf (69, foul); Ferdinand (79, unsporting behaviour)
Referee: Mike Dean - Slightly whistle-happy but made all the correct calls. 8
6 Gordon: Was untested for long spells as Sunderland dominated, but was generally solid
6 Bardsley: Revelled in his preferred role of right-back and supported the attacks well
7 Ferdinand: Composed and calm at the back, coped admirably with Benjani in the second half
8 Bramble: Captain for the first time and rose to the occasion. First start since November but came through with flying colours
6 Richardson: Back to left-back, was full of energy and was given plenty of time and space to get involved
7 Elmohamady: Crossing, in the first half particularly, was first-class. Much more impressive on the wing (Angeleri 86)
7 Meyler: Not afraid to put his foot in and win the ball back. Consistently good
7 Henderson: Classy display, took full advantage of Blackburn's misfiring midfield and made a decent assist
8 MALBRANQUE: At his most effective from the left cutting inside, tormented Blackburn at times
7 Welbeck: In a real rich vein of form and was at the heart of much of Sunderland's attacking (Zenden 69)
6 Bent: Took his goal well, but missed a handful of chances. Against tougher teams, he might not get as many (Gyan 82).
Subs: Zenden (for Welbeck, 69): Gave presence to Sunderland's midfield as they looked to seal the game. 6
Gyan (for Bent, 82)
Angeleri (for Elmohamady 86)
Not used: Mignolet (gk), Da Silva, Riveros, Cook.
BLACKBURN (4-5-1): Bunn 5; Hanley 6 (Benjani 46, 6), Givet 5, Nelsen 5, Olsson 5; EH Diouf 6, DUNN 7 (Goulon 85), Emerton 5, Pedersen 6, Hoillett 6 (Morris 78); M Diouf 6.
Subs not used: Fielding (gk), Linganzi, Doran, Lowe.
MAN OF THE MATCH
STEED Malbranque - Always probing, able to pick out the perfect pass and is on top of his game