My First Game #11: Sunderland 2-3 Barnsley, 1998

Ashley Ward put on quite a show back in 1998, and Dan Williams was there to witness it.

Hello everyone. We're back with another installment of My First Game, and this time, it's me that's doing the honours as I tell you all about my first experience of a Sunderland game.

Now, I know that it seems a little odd that I didn't go to a football match until the late nineties, and all of that will soon become clear, so instead of rabbiting on, I'll jump straight into things and explain...

Unsurprisingly, this wasn't actually my first-ever game.

Many of you that are regulars on the site will know that I grew up as a Barnsley fan. I realise that by even writing this post, I'm leaving myself open to more abuse from our very own Michael Graham (something along the lines of 'more clubs than Tiger Woods'), but his friendly exchanges make the world go around.

To provide a bit of background, my actual first game was in 1993 at Oakwell, as Barnsley took on Leicester. It would have otherwise been a wholly forgettable game, a 0-0 draw when the most entertaining part for the crowd was laughing at ex-Tykes midfielder Steve Agnew and his bald head.

Being a Barnsley supporter growing up in Huddersfield, I didn't have much of a choice of who to go to games with, so it was always a case of me and my mum going to games. We had been all over the country in the 1997/98 season, watching the Reds get tanked reguarly in our one and only season in the top flight, and this continued through the 98/99 season, with manager Danny Wilson long-gone on his way to Sheffield Wednesday.

It was John Hendrie that the Barnsley board chose to steady the ship, and although the season was an ultimately disappointing one, with no real push to return to the promised land ever materialising, it did have its highlights, like this match in question.

I imagine that a lot of Sunderland fans will remember this game, one that I shall now dub, 'the Ashley Ward show'.

Following Sunderland's heartbreak at Wembley in the playoff final, and Micky Gray's wonder strike, the Black Cats, as you will all know, came out all guns blazing. Leading into this game, they had gone 18 matches unbeaten, and were looking to set a new record against the South Yorkshire visitors.

I went to a lot of rubbish stadiums that year. It was a real reality check after the heady heights of the Premier League, but the Stadium of Light bore little resemblance to a cold Tuesday night at Tranmere. It was obvious for an 'outsider' at the time that this was a club that deserved to be in the top flight, and the stadium trumped a number of grounds that I had visited in the previous season.

I can't claim to remember the whole match, my memory just doesn't manage things like that these days. There are of course certain encounters that I've been to that will never leave me, but I'm a bit patchy on this one.

What I do know is that Barnsley took a surprise lead through player of the season Ashley Ward, who was playing his final game before serving a suspension for a red card picked up at Wolves.

I was always a huge fan of 'Wardy', and not being able to keep him at Barnsley for the whole season probably did more damage to our campaign than anything else. However, having scored a tremendous opener which saw him chase down a long ball and shrug off the challenge of Darren Williams, he had the chance to double Barnsley's lead from the penalty spot soon after, and really put the shell-shocked Black Cats in trouble.

Unfortunately for the Tykes, he didn't show the same composure that he had a couple of minutes earlier, and skied a penalty awarded for Williams' challenge on Bruce Dyer, leaving the Stadium of Light to breath a collective sigh of relief. Then, and all three incidents happened within six minutes of each other, he was sent off for a reckless stamp on Williams. It was Barnsley's fifth red card of the season, and all chances of picking up an unlikely victory seemed to go out of the window with 54 minutes still left on the clock.

As they say though, football is a wonderful game, and it was the afore-mentioned Dyer that struck just seconds into the second half to put Barnsley further in front. It was his first goal for the Reds after moving from Crystal Palace, and suddenly the visitors were looking like a shock victory may be on the cards.

One thing that stuck with me from the game was the way that the Sunderland crowd never turned on their team, and kept the belief that they would still get something from the game. They were right, well, almost, as the often rash and rarely composed Chris Morgan fouled Danny Dichio in the area. In all honesty, it was never a penalty, but Martin Scott dispatched the spot kick, and Sunderland were back in the game.

There was an air of inevitability about the second. After being a Barnsley fan for 14 years (at that point), everyone sitting in the away end knew that our hard work to that point wouldn't mean a thing, and we were right when Niall Quinn's looping header drew things level.

But, as I've learnt since, you could always rely on Kevin Ball to give away a free kick, and that's what he did with the game reaching its dying seconds. When you have a player in your squad with a left foot as sweet as Darren Barnard's, then anything can happen, and as the ball hit the net from his sublime free kick, the away end erupted.

Maybe something about that day, the emotion of being two goals to the good, throwing it away and then grabbing the points at the end of the day left a lasting impression of Sunderland on me. The sheer size and impressiveness of the stadium, compared to others I had seen that year, and the passion of the fans really stuck with me. It probably subconsciously influenced my decision to move to the town many years later, a decision that is allowing you to read my words on this website right now.

I'm almost certain that I will have seen Sunderland play Barnsley before this season, but it's the first time that I saw them play away up in the north east, and it's the one that really sticks in my head. Not only because of the excitement of such a great match, but also because, well, it's Sunderland, isn't it?

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