Following the heartbreak of defeat to Charlton in that epic play-off final of 1998, it was perhaps a fair assumption that quite a lot of the Sunderland fan base were probably wondering how their club would react to such a disappointment in the following campaign.
However, none of us need have worried, for to say that the response was positive would be a bit of an understatement.
The 1998-99 season was to prove memorable to say the least, as Peter Reid’s red and white army swept aside all before them en route to not just promotion back to the Premier League. However in spite of Reidy’s side’s mesmerizing form, promotion and indeed the title itself were not secured until the latter stages of the season - in fact, our return to the “promised land” was booked not at the Stadium Of Light but in the slightly less glamorous surroundings of Gigg Lane, home of Bury FC.
The Bury away fixture had originally been scheduled for the end of March, but had been moved to a midweek slot during the following month due to international call-ups. This was a pity, for had the game gone ahead on it’s original Saturday date then I’d have almost certainly made the trip to this particular part of Lancashire, Gigg Lane being a venue where I’d never previously visited (and still haven’t).
For the new date made it impossible for me attend, due to not being able to get time off work. Still, there was the consolation of being able to see the game live on TV at my local pub after work, over a nice meal and drink or two (while one or two more would be consumed at full-time) in the company of fellow Sunderland fans who’d also been unable to be present at the game.
But what an occasion!
Gigg Lane seemed almost taken over by red and white, giving Bury what must surely have been their best home League gate of the season, 8,669, with the atmosphere amongst the travelling fans expectant to say the least.
Bury - in contrast to ourselves - had struggled during the season, and as such were battling to stay in Division 1, therefore the points were as important to them as they were to us. And as such, the home side subjected us to an uneasy first ten minutes or so as they strove for the vital breakthrough, though it was us who opened the scoring when our golden marksman Kevin Phillips netted from the penalty spot to ease our nerves after he’d been fouled inside the area.
To their credit Bury then responded positively to this setback and were rewarded when Darren Bullock beat Thomas Sorensen with a tremendous effort from just outside the box.
Game on. But Sunderland’s response was equally positive and Niall Quinn restored our lead following a mix-up between goalkeeper and a defender, then when “Super Kev” completed his hat-trick to give us a 4-1 half-time lead it appeared game over, with promotion now merely another forty-five or so minutes away. The celebrations could almost begin.
However, Sunderland then passed up several chances to really “put the game to bed“ while they also had what they considered justifiable claims for a penalty turned down, when Allan “Magic” Johnston appeared to be fouled in the box.
But Bury were still intent on making a contest of things, which was illustrated quite clearly when they grabbed a second goal, another cracking effort, this time from Nick Daws, who beat Sorensen clinically from the edge of the box - the first time in fact that “The Great Dane” had been beaten twice in a game since the 1-2 reverse v Watford at the end of January.
The home side then appeared to up their game, and Sorensen was forced to make a great save to deny Chris Billy, while an acrobatic effort from Chris Swailes struck the woodwork.
But Sunderland were still very much alive as an attacking force, and substitute Michael Bridges went close - then right at the death came the cherry on the cake when SuperKev sealed the win and at the same time made sure of visits to Anfield, Old Trafford and like in 1999-00, with a delicious curling effort which left keeper Dean Kiely grasping thin air as it nestled in the back of the net.
Cue then hysteria amongst the travelling contingent, and those who‘d followed the game by TV/radio, including of course myself. Job done - or at least half of it.
Needless to say, the full-time whistle sparked scenes of wild celebration as the promotion party began, not just at Bury FC, but doubtless in the many homes, and also pubs and clubs on Wearside.
It had been a night to remember in Lancashire (at least for the red and white contingent at Gigg Lane) but it was really only “part one” of our mission, for the issue of the championship remained as this was not yet mathematically certain.
However, we didn’t have long to wait, for three days hence at Oakwell we avenged our home defeat by Barnsley (the only side to win at the Stadium Of Light in the League in 1998-99) earlier in the season in rather fitting style with a 3-1 win, when SuperKev emulated his feat at Bury by sealing the result with a superb curling effort near the end.
Thus, we were now undisputed champions of Nationwide Division One with three games to spare. Great days indeed.