The season following relegation, Peter Reid would lead his men into a new stadium and promotion nearly-land with a play-off final appearance which would go down in history. There would be no mistake in the campaign which followed as Sunderland broke records and tore up the old Division One to return to the top-flight.
Following the '97 drop Reid signed Kevin Phillips, Chris Makin, Lee Clark and Jody Craddock; Nicky Summerbee would follow in the November of that year and the new additions would complete the core of a Sunderland squad which would be responsible for several good years to come.
That campaign, 1997-98, was the first at Sunderland's new home. As supporters settled themselves into the new stadium on the banks of the Wear, Peter Reid's side took a few weeks to stumble blinking into the light.
The name of the new ground had been announced just a fortnight before the season started. Sunderland AFC christened the Stadium of Light at midnight on 29th July 1997. If now, two decades later the name fits, at first the moniker took a bit of time for most to digest.
As for the football, the relegation hangover took a month of football to shift. Sunderland won their first competitive match at the new stadium - against Manchester City - but that would be the only victory in the opening month of the season which saw defeats at the hands of Sheffield United, Port Vale and Norwich.
A run of five wins and a draw followed, but when Middlesbrough came to visit at the end of September and nicked off down the A19 with three points, Sunderland looked stuck in mid-table.
What followed though was a storming run through the Division One standings with just three further defeats in the league until the end of the season.
The story of the promotion nearly-men was the play-off defeat to Charlton of course. The game has become something of a classic but heartbreak at Wembley was a gut-wrenching affair for the 40,000 Sunderland fans who made their way to the capital to see their side lose on penalties.
The Play-Off appearance followed Middlesbrough pipping Sunderland to the automatic promotion spot with Nottingham Forest finishing the season as champions.
Sunderland had hauled themselves up to second in the table and were looking good for an automatic promotion spot by the end of March, but a stuttering run from Easter onwards - of just three wins from the final six games of the season - handed the straight-up spot to 'Boro and Peter Reid's men would instead face the lottery of Wembley, as the man himself recalls:
There was always a problem with the play offs, the team could have gone the other way. It was no-one’s fault at Wembley, the issue was that the week before we had battered QPR on Good Friday and in the rain we lost a 2 nil lead to only draw.
We were a bit naïve and young but a very good side.
The Play-Off final itself is well documented - the agony of penalties settling the day. But by this point in his Sunderland mission, Peter Reid had assembled a strong squad which the following season would prove.
The 1998-99 Division One side only lost three games all season. The 105-point tally was a record at the time. Kevin Philips was at his best and he bagged 23 goals in his 26 appearances; his partnership with Niall Quinn has become legendary and the big Irishman scored 18 times himself.
In truth, that Sunderland team were simply too strong for the second-tier and so it would prove. There were some big victories on the way to the Football League Championship. Tranmere were beaten by five-goals-to-nil at the Stadium of Light in the August with Oxford smashed for seven a few weeks later.
A run of fourteen wins in the final eighteen games of the season would sew the league up and Sunderland were headed back to the Premier League. For Reid, it was never in doubt:
Quinn and Phillips were top drawer to have, and come the summer after the disappointment, we all knew it would finally happen. So actually the whole squad expected to win every week and that showed in the 105 points.
The previous year had ended in broken hearts, but 1998-99 ended with broken records. The final game of the season was a 2-1 victory over Birmingham City in front of 41,634 - a then-record crowd for the new stadium. Three points that day would mean Sunderland had beaten the football league record points tally then held by Swindon which had been set thirteen years prior in the old Division Four.
That campaign was a fabulous one to watch Sunderland. Peter Reid's men returned sixty home points from a possible sixty-nine. Birmingham's 38th minute strike in the final game of the season was only the tenth goal Thomas Sorensen had conceded in the home net and as Kevin Ball hoisted the First Division trophy aloft, thoughts returned to the Premier League and whether the club could make a real go of the top-tier in its second bite at it.