There was an air of expectancy on Wearside in the summer of 1996, for after the rather splendid achievement of having won the Championship of Division One in Peter Reid’s first full season as manager at Roker we could now look forward to our first-ever season in the English Premier League. And this of course meant encounters with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United et al in season 1996-97, rather than fixtures against Barnsley, Grimsby, Southend and the like.
While we never looked like winning the Premier League itself, we still held our own fairly comfortably during the first few months of season 1996-97, mainly due to fairly solid home form, when the only real setback in our own backyard had been defeat at the hands of the Mags in the last-ever Wear/Tyne derby clash at Roker in early September.
In contrast, our away form had been rather poor, for after we’d rather commendably taken three points from our first two away engagements - rather tough affairs at Forest and Liverpool (the former fixture having produced a tremendous 4-1 win for us) - we then proceeded to lose our next five away league fixtures. To make matters worse, we’d also failed to score a single goal in the process. Shades a bit of that terrible run twenty years earlier in season 1976-77, maybe!
However, as November was about to reach its conclusion, our away record in turn would receive a welcome if maybe unexpected boost. Somewhat ironically it came at one of Peter Reid’s former clubs, namely Everton, who were flying high in sixth place in the Premier League. On paper at least it was clearly a rather daunting task facing Reid’s current side, particularly in view of the fact that the Toffees had hammered Southampton by 7-1 in their previous home game. But it was a test which we’d pass with flying colours.
It was also of course a rather poignant return to Goodison Park for Paul Bracewell, who along with his current boss, had enjoyed so much success in Everton’s rather all-conquering side of the previous decade. Our line-up showed two changes to that which were held at home by Sheffield Wednesday the previous week, when Alex Rae came into midfield while Craig Russell replaced Michael Bridges up front, the latter dropping to the subs bench. So on a rather crisp late November afternoon, backed by another sizeable away following in a crowd of just over 40,000, we kicked off attacking the Gwladys Street End.
Our first real chance almost brought us an early lead when a long ball from Andy Melville was headed on by Alex Rae into the middle, the ball eventually falling rather aptly for Paul Bracewell, whose low drive was only inches off target. Then after a surging run from Andrei Kanchelskis had been snuffed out, Dariusz Kubicki’s long ball out of defence looked like setting Craig Russell free, until Neville Southall raced out of his goal to relieve the danger.
We were then forced onto the defensive when Everton threatened, first from a corner then a free-kick, then Martin Smith and Paul Bracwell combined well to set up a chance for Gareth Hall, who’d pushed forward from defence, but unfortunately wasted the opportunity by shooting straight at Neville Southall.
It was very much end-to-end stuff now, and when Andy Melville conceded a free-kick for a foul on Graham Stuart, the ball was only half-cleared, and allowed Earl Barrett the chance to link up with Stuart to set up Andrei Kanchelskis. The Ukrainian cut inside to unleash a powerful drive, but thankfully Lionel Perez was able to turn the ball away for a corner which came to nothing, as Andy Hinchcliffe’s flag-kick was collected quite comfortably by our flamboyant French ‘keeper.
Our next attack almost led to us going ahead in the 13th minute. When Martin Smith beat Earl Barrett and fired in a cross-cum-shot which was blocked, the ball broke kindly for Kevin Ball. His close-range shot looked to be on its way into the net having beaten Neville Southall - but the ‘keeper recovered to grab the ball just short of the goal line.
Lionel Perez then collected another Andy Hinchcliffe corner, this time at the second attempt, then Martin Scott had to be alert to deny Tony Grant, who’d got himself into a threatening position.
Neville Southall produced a smart save to deny Alex Rae, who’d been set free by a neat flick by Martin Smith. Just short of the half-hour mark we almost gifted Everton the lead, courtesy of a misunderstanding between Lionel Perez and Andy Melville; Melville had time to clear but instead appeared to leave the ball for Perez, who seemed to think that his defender should’ve take charge of the situation. Though when Nick Barmby looked like he may take advantage of this indecision Melville thankfully was able to intercept at the expense of a corner, which came to nothing.
Another free-kick for Everton, this time taken by Andy Hinchcliffewas comfortably saved by Lionel Perez, who was tBracwell not to be penalised for handball when he appeared to carry the ball outside his penalty area. Then a neat chip into the middle by Nick Barmby just failed to pick out Gary Speed as the home side kept up the pressure.
But 0-0 was how it stood at the break, maybe a fair reflection of the first period overall.
We were by no means finished though, and a neat ball by David Kelly looked like it might set either Craig Russell or Alex Rae away on goal, but unfortunately both were caught offside. Andy Melville then headed over following a corner from Martin Smith, but we kept up the pressure and were rewarded in the 54th minute. Alex Rae beat Andy Hinchcliffe on the right, and his cross from the byeline was met by Craig Russell, who beat Neville Southall with a powerful header.
Everton responded immediately to this setback, and Lionel Perez pulled off a brilliant save to deny Andrei Kanchelskis, who looked a certain scorer, but then we almost doubled our lead, again through the Rae/Russell combination. When the Scotsman again picked out the young forward his fierce drive came back into play off the upright, with Southall well beaten.
Lionel Perez then comfortably gathered a centre from Earl Barrett, but just after the hour mark the ‘keeper was helpless when Everton equalised. Perez had done brilliantly to turn fierce effort from Everton substitute Michael Branch over the bar for a corner, but when the flag-kick reached the middle, giant Scottish striker Duncan Ferguson headed home emphatically to bring his side level. Game on.
Michael Bridges then replaced Craig Russell after 70 minutes, and what an inspired substitution this proved to be. Just four minutes after appearing, Bridges put us 2-1 up when he met a cross from Paul Bracewell - and while his header initially seemed to hang in the air, eventually the ball dropped out of Neville Southall’s reach and into the corner of the net to the delight of the travelling fans.
This goal seemed to spark fresh life into us, and Michael Gray then had a fierce effort beaten out by Neville Southall. Steve Agnew then replaced Alex Rae, and this proved to be another inspired move on the part of Peter Reid.
After Everton had a penalty claim turned down we surged up field, and Agnew found himself with a clear run on goal. While Neville Southall pulled off a superb double save to firstly block Agnew’s shot and Michael Gray’s follow-up effort, it was a case of third time unlucky for the Welsh international ‘keeper - Michael Bridges latched onto the rebound to score his second goal of the game from a tight angle, to put the result beyond all doubt.
3-1 then, our first win in the blue part of Merseyside since November 1981.
It had been a fine afternoon’s work and a well-deserved win in the end which moved us up to twelfth in the Premiership, while it had also of course been a happy homecoming for ex-Toffees Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell.
Sadly, we came back down to earth after a 1-3 reverse against The Crazy Gang of Wimbledon at Roker Park the following week, and while we defeated another of the Premier League elite in the shape of Chelsea at home the week after, the next away day produced a pre-Xmas 0-5 hammering at Old Trafford.
We didn’t register another away win until the following April in a crucial six-pointer at Middlesbrough who, like ourselves, were by this time battling the drop. We also completed the double over Everton in the last league game of the season - the last-ever league game at Roker Park - which gave us a fighting chance of avoiding the drop, but unfortunately we still eventually made an immediate return downstairs following defeat at Wimbledon.
And the team who escaped at our expense? Who other than Coventry City, in circumstances ironically similar to that twenty years previous in season 1976-77.
Who says that history doesn’t repeat?