The Dominic Matteo mix up was a case of Sunderland having to get out of jail. I didn’t find out until after the match what had happened, and until the Matteo case there had never been an example of a club not getting fined and docked points for fielding an illegible player in a competitive match.
Dominic Matteo joined us during our relegation battle in March 1995, initially on a one month loan, signing for Mick Buxton with the Lads staring relegation to the Endsleigh League Division Two (now League 1) directly in the face.
A home defeat to Middlesbrough the week beforehand had took Sunderland to 20th in the league, with Swindon Town in 21st place closely tracking them.
It wasn't the best of times to be visiting Roker Park.
To help with our relegation worries, Chairman Bob Murray opened his chequebook and paid £750,000 for striker Brett Angell who, alongside the Liverpool loanee, were hopefully seen as the catalysts we needed to catapult us to safety with eight games remaining.
Sunderland had lost five of the previous six games and were sinking without trace as Matteo lined up against Barnsley for an unusual Friday night kick off late in March. Replacing Kevin Ball, the future Scottish international would play in the midfield alongside the long serving Gordon Armstrong in a typical 442 formation, with Martin Smith and Steve Agnew manning the flanks. Star signing Angell would partner top scorer Phil Gray up front. It would be Buxton's final game in the charge on Wearside though, with the new signings failing to make a difference to the poor run of form.
We went down 2-0, with second half goals from Malcolm Shotton and Andy Payton consigning the teal clad Rokerites to defeat. A windy night on Oakwell had forced some fans into wearing sunglasses to protect them from the spiralling dust getting into their eyes. By the end of the game, they must have wished it had. A sixth defeat in seven would seal Mick Buxton's fate as he was replaced with Peter Reid, who was tasked with a survival job, taking charge of our final seven games.
However, one of the first challenges faced by the Scouser was the apparent "illegal" signing of one of Friday night's debutants. Sunderland, as per usual, hit all the headlines for all the wrong reasons as it had came to light that Matteo had not been registered correctly, thus making him an ineligible player. Teetering on the brink of the relegation trap door and a point deduction likely, it was feared Reid's task would become more than just difficult, but perhaps impossible - and before he'd even took charge of his first game. As it turned out, our Bob had managed to sweet talk the FA into fining us a measly £2,500.
How he did it is something we'll never quite know. He did make a comment on that meeting quite a few years later, however nothing much was given away. "It was not a meeting I’d like to repeat but thankfully we made a strong case and avoided a points deduction” - it was perhaps all we really needed to know.
With the point deduction fears allayed, Peter Reid's resurgent Black Cats lost only one of their final seven games.
The malarkey surrounding Matteo was long gone, as he made a swift and successful return to Anfield. Though never a regular, he managed to star in 127 games. After a successful 99/00 season at Liverpool it was expected the versatile Dumfries-born player would make himself a permanent member of the starting eleven there, but instead he was surprisingly sold to Leeds United.
He would go on to became a cult hero at the club, scoring a goal at the San Siro in Leeds' Champions league campaign. He would later go on to be part of the defence that helped them to the Semi-finals of that competition. Rio Ferdinand departed to Manchester United shortly after though and our one game wonder would be given the captaincy at the Yorkshire club. Within seasons though, they'd go crashing out of the Premiership in spectacular fashion. He would then go on to join Blackburn Rovers following that relegation, later seeing out his career at Stoke City, retiring in 2009, at the age of 35.
In 2015 it was reported he blew his fortune he earned over his decade of Premiership football, declaring bankrupty after betting over £1m, including £100,000 on one single horse. Well, well, well.