Recent trips to The Hawthorns have not been the most satisfying for Black Cats fans. After throwing away a 2-0 lead a week previously at home to Birmingham City on the opening day of this season, Sunderland's first away trip of the 2010/11 campaign came in the form of a dismal 0-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion. Their previous visit, two seasons prior, had been no better; a side managed by Ricky Sbragia went down 0-3 in the Midlands, paving the way for a last day escape from relegation.
Red and white visits to the Black Country have not always been quite so miserable though, and Sunderland's last trip there in the twentieth century was a stand-out highlight of a Championship-winning season.
Peter Reid's Sunderland side arrived at West Brom on a sunny Sunday in October 1998, having not lost in their campaign thus far. Five wins and six draws in their first eleven games had the Black Cats lying second in what was then named Division One; SKY TV cameras were at The Hawthorns, allowing a national audience to see whether or not the men from Wearside could make it a dozen games unbeaten following the previous season's heartbreaking play-off final defeat.
The Sunderland XI that day was, with the odd exception, one that remained the same for much of the season. Thomas Sorensen, two years before THAT penalty save, lined up in goal following his summer transfer from Danish side Odense. In front of the future international was a solid back four of Chris Makin, Michael Gray, Andy Melville and Paul Butler. On the wings, Nicky Summerbee and Alan Johnston provided infinite balls into the box, complimented by an almost impenetrable centre consisting of Alex Rae and captain Kevin Ball. Current chairman and club legend Niall Quinn wore number nine up front, whilst, with Kevin Phillips nursing a long term injury, Danny Dichio was favoured over Michael Bridges as the Irishman's strike partner.
As for the Baggies, their line-up was largely unremarkable. Not quite ready for their own push at the Premier League, the side managed by ex-Sunderland gaffer Denis Smith was one made up mainly of journeymen. That said, there were two exceptions. Lee Hughes, the man who would go to jail five years later for causing death by dangerous driving, spearheaded West Brom's attack. Meanwhile, supplying Hughes, was Kevin Kilbane, a man who would join Sunderland just over a year later.
By half-time, it seemed that the unbeaten run was at its end. The home side ran the visiting red and whites ragged, and were comfortably in front when referee Roger Furnandiz called first-half proceedings to a close. Displaying little of the quality his side had for the previous eleven games, Peter Reid found himself bemoaning two Lee Hughes goals in the space of ten minutes.
The first, just before the half-hour mark, came courtesy of future Black Cat Kilbane. He it was who nodded the ball into the Sunderland area and to the feet of Hughes, who, displaying an ability to find the net that has still not deserted him following his release from prison, duly beat Sorensen.
Eight minutes later, the man now at Notts County struck again. This time the assist came from Andy McDermott; the Australian, who himself would join County later in his career, put a cross into the area. Hughes was quicker to the ball than Paul Butler, and the majority of the 14,746-strong crowd jumped in celebration.
Sunderland, staring their first defeat of the season squarely in the face, needed a leader. Step forward Kevin Ball. In scenes similar to those that future Black Cat boss Roy Keane would play out on a far greater stage in Turin six months later, Ball grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and pulled his team firmly back into it.
Bolting out of the half-time break like a horse from the stables, Ball's tenacity inspired his team-mates – and rattled the previously comfortable hosts.
In the West Brom goal, Alan Miller, aided by his back-line, did his utmost to weather the storm. For the first twenty minutes of the second-half it worked, but then the barriers were battered down by an Andy Melville header. Leaping highest to an inch-perfect Summerbee free-kick, the Welshman's second goal of the season gifted Reid's side the belief that this game was far from over.
A little over ten minutes after, they were level. Michael Bridges, having replaced Dichio on the hour-mark, rewarded his manager's decision, rifling a low shot past Miller into the far corner. Where, in the first half, the Baggies fans had been in full voice, they were now silenced. Instead it was the travelling fans who exploded; meanwhile, on the pitch, the away side knew the game was theirs for the taking.
Far from being satisfied with an equaliser, Sunderland bombed forward even more now, hunting victory like a predator hunts its prey. With the clock ticking towards ninety, they got their reward, in spectacular fashion.
Nicky Summerbee once more provided the initial cross, whipping a venomous, stinging ball towards the head of Quinn. The lanky forward nodded the ball on where it fell to who else but Kevin Ball, who promptly fired a sumptuous volley into the roof of the West Brom net. 3-2. Game over.
Smith's Albion were done for. Shellshocked by the second-half performance of the visitors, they could muster no meaningful threat in the final stages, and resigned themselves to defeat. West Brom would finish twelfth that year; it would take until 2002 until they finally returned to the top tier of English football.
In a way, this game personified Sunderland's season. A never-say-die attitude was complimented with an ability to build up the momentum of a runaway freight train; very few teams that year were able to successfully stop it in its tracks. Indeed, in the league, only three did, and the Black Cats cantered to the First Division championship with a (then) record points haul.