THE stakes could hardly have been higher when Sunderland lined up against Millwall in the FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford in April 2004.

Having seen off Hartlepool, Ipswich, Birmingham and Sheffield United in the previous rounds of the competition, Sunderland took on their fellow Championship side knowing victory would secure a place in the FA Cup final.

Just as significantly, with Manchester United having beaten Arsenal in the other semi-final on the previous day, the Black Cats also knew qualification for the final at Wembley would effectively guarantee a place in Europe for the following season.

It was a day of enormous possibility. Sadly, however, it was not meant to be. Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland side had their chances, but ultimately it was to be Millwall celebrating semi-final success.

The Northern Echo: Sunderland's players in their pre-match huddle at Old TraffordSunderland's players in their pre-match huddle at Old Trafford (Image: Dave Wood)

With the two teams extremely closely matches, Sunderland’s best moment came after just six minutes. John Oster lined up a free-kick on the edge of the 18-yard box, but while his well-struck effort beat Andy Marshall in the Millwall goal, the ball cannoned to safety off the underside of the crossbar.

It was to prove a crucial moment, as the Lions claimed what proved to be the winning goal midway through the first half.

George McCartney failed to find Phil Babb with an attempted pass, enabling Millwall midfielder Paul Ifill to seize on the loose ball. His shot was saved by Mart Poom, but the ball fell invitingly for Tim Cahill, who side-footed home via a deflection off McCartney. Cahill would go on to inflict repeated damage on Sunderland during almost a decade with Everton.

Sunderland’s second-half attempts to get back into the game saw Kevin Kyle fire a shot wide and angle in a header that Marshall tipped away.

Julio Arca fired over as the Black Cats continued to press, and McCartney almost made up for his first-half error when he drilled a shot just wide with six minutes left.

Sunderland’s task became even harder moments later as Jason McAteer received a second yellow card for committing a foul that halted a Millwall counter-attack, and their last opportunity came to nothing in the dying seconds when substitute Matt Piper was denied.

The Northern Echo: Sunderland desperately try to score in the dying secondsSunderland desperately try to score in the dying seconds (Image: Dave Wood)

The Black Cats had suffered semi-final heartbreak, and another dose was to arrive at the end of the season when they suffered a penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace in the semi-finals of the play-offs.

Sunderland: Poom; Wright (Thornton 90), Babb (Piper 77), Breen, McCartney; Oster, McAteer, Thirlwell, Arca; Kyle (Stewart 61), Smith.

Millwall: Marshall; Ryan (Elliott 56), Muscat (Roberts 42), Ward, Lawrence; Livermore, Cahill, Wise, Ifill (Sweeney 29); Dichio, Harris.