Last week in Roker Relives, we wound the clock back to Sunderland's record-breaking 1998/99 season, detailing that year's visit to West Brom, a game which reflected the entertainment, quality and fantastic work-rate of that 105-point campaign. This week we look at another game against opposition from the Midlands, with a reflection on that season's curtain call against Birmingham City.
Sunderland welcomed the Blues to the Stadium of Light secure in the knowledge that the First Division championship would be presented to them at the end of the ninety minutes. A 5-2 victory a month earlier at Bury had ensured promotion, whilst a 3-1 win at Barnsley three days after that confirmed Peter Reid's side would go up as champions. The visit of Trevor Francis' Birmingham was little more than a celebration of a remarkable ten months; Wearside was in the mood for a party.
But the visitors were in no mood to resign themselves to a supporting role. Francis' side were still in touching distance of third place, and were determined to secure the best possible route through the dreaded play-offs...
With their ears still ringing, following a pre-match rendition of the recently adopted Sunderland anthem 'Ready to Go' by Republica, a sell-out crowd welcomed a full-strength red and white eleven onto the sun-drenched turf. Thomas Sorensen, a revelation in his first season in England, assumed his position between the sticks, protected by a rearguard of Makin, Gray, Melville and Butler. Commanding the midfield was club legend, and team captain, Kevin Ball, whilst Lee Clark, soon to turn himself into public enemy number one on Wearside, played alongside him in what proved to be his final game for Sunderland. Nicky Summerbee and Alan Johnston were the obvious choices out wide, and up front the archetypal big-and-little combination of Quinn and Phillips readied themselves for one final demolition of an opposing defence.
For the Blues, veteran Kevin Poole was chosen in goal, whilst his back four consisted of Michael Johnson and three men in their first season at St. Andrews: Gary Rowett, Simon Charlton and David Holdsworth. Another newcomer, Graham Hyde, lined up in midfield, alongside Jon McCarthy, Martin Grainger and Bryan Hughes. Up front, Paul Furlong partnered Crystal Palace loanee Lee Bradbury.
The sense of occasion undoubtedly got to the hosts, and it was the visiting promotion-contenders who took control of the opening half-hour. Thus it came as no surprise when, seven minutes before the interval, Grainger put the hosts one up. Latching onto the ball inside the six-yard box following a Graham Hyde free-kick, the man from Enfield had home fans sitting uncomfortably when the half-time whistle came. Indeed, it could have been worse for the champions; both McCarthy and Hughes had previously hit the woodwork.
Given the footage presented to the world by the remarkable 'Premier Passions' documentary a few years earlier, there is little doubting what sort of tone Peter Reid's half-time teamtalk took. Even with the title sown up, the ex-Evertonian was a born winner; nothing but a victorious end would be satisfactory.
Heeding their managers advice, and not wishing to disappoint the 42,000 in attendance, Sunderland entered into the final forty-five minutes of their season with a sense of vigour. Pivotal to the turnaround was Nicky Summerbee on the right, with the man signed from Manchester City sending scores of crosses into dangerous areas.
On the hour mark, the equaliser came. Kevin Phillips, in front of an adoring home end, dispatched his twenty-fifth and final goal of the season – an astonishing feat given that he missed four months of the campaign through injury.
Now, just as with the aforementioned West Brom game, momentum lead Sunderland to victory. The winner came less than ten minutes after the first, with Summerbee again heavily involved. This time he whipped the ball into the path of club legend Niall Quinn, and the Irishman made no mistake. Oft-remembered for his aerial prowess, the current chairman this time showed his deftness of touch on the floor, side-footing home the ninety-first, and final, goal of the Wearsiders' season.
The rest of the match took on a procession-like manner. Mexican waves abounded in the crowd, and the visitors realised their efforts would be better focussed on upcoming play-off battles. Sunderland ran out 2-1 winners, securing their their thirty-first league victory that year.
Birmingham would finish fourth, leaving them the tricky task of facing Watford in the play-offs. After each won their home legs 1-0, the tie went to penalties; the Blues suffered the same devastation as Sunderland the previous season, losing 6-7 to the eventual play-off winners.
For Sunderland, the victory ended a fantastic response to the nightmarish scenes at Wembley a year earlier. Peter Reid would go on to guide his side to two consecutive seventh-placed finishes, giving many a fan their best days since the famous FA Cup victory in 1973.
Don't forget, for more big match build-up and SAFC news, views and opinion - The Roker Report Podcast is now on iTunes, with brand new episodes every Thursday! Hey, that's today! Go get it!