There have been some interesting clashes between Sunderland and Sheffield United down the years. I seem to recall a 6-2 home win over the Third Division-bound Blades in April 1979 (which unfortunately, didn’t help our promotion cause), then in the same month eleven years hence an important 3-1 win for us in a vital promotion clash at Bramall Lane (both ourselves and The Blades would eventually go up at the end of season 1989-90). Then in season 1997-98, we met The Yorkshire side on no less than four occasions, twice in the league, and twice in the play-offs, with honours ending even with two wins apiece.
Relegation from the Premier League in 1997 had come as a big blow to the club, particularly with the rather sad but still inevitable move from outdated Roker Park to our superb new ground on the site of the former Wearmouth Colliery.
And to perhaps compound matters even more we’d made a slightly inauspicious start to the 1997-98 campaign, though a rather inglorious 0-4 defeat at Reading in early October seemed to kick-start the side into life, and from then on the only way seemed to be up as we embarked on a strong run of form which propelled us into the thick of the promotion battle.
Sheffield United were also seeking to upgrade their status and had got off to the perfect start by beating us 2-0 at Bramall Lane in the first league game of the season, before we exacted revenge by winning 4-2 in the return fixture just after Christmas in what for me personally was one of the best games ever seen at The Stadium Of Light.
And by the time April came round we looked to be strong contenders for one of the two automatic promotion spots, while United were looking good for a place in the play-offs. However, dropped points over Easter against QPR and WBA, when we squandered winning positions in both games, and a defeat at Ipswich at the end of April proved to be rather costly, and even a win at Swindon on the final day of the league season proved to be in vain as Middlesbrough won at home to guarantee themselves second place and an immediate return to the Premier League, alongside Champions Nottingham Forest.
Thus we found ourselves in the play-offs, and a two-legged tie with Sheffield United. And despite going in front through Kevin Ball we lost the first leg at Bramall Lane, although only narrowly by 1-2, which set things up nicely for the second leg. Could we overturn the deficit? Well I, along no doubt with most of another 40,000+ Stadium Of Light crowd thought so, and we weren’t to be disappointed.
I arrived early at the ground and witnessed lengthy queues at nearly every turnstile, this even an hour or so before kick-off, such appeared to be the anticipation on the part of the home support, and it did in fact remind me of a similar scenario at the final home Third Division game against Northampton a decade earlier.
And not surprisingly the atmosphere inside the ground was electric in view of what was stake for both clubs. We began positively in our bid to overturn the first-leg deficit, and after “Super” Kevin Phillips had twice gone close, we forced the vital breakthrough after twenty-one minutes - though we needed a touch of good fortune.
United appeared to have two legitimate claims for free-kicks turned down before Allan “Magic” Johnston received the ball on the left, advanced towards the United penalty area, before letting fly with a cross-cum-shot which appeared to be going off-target before it struck the unfortunate Nicky Marker and went into the net via the upright.
“Magic” no doubt claimed the goal, but officially it was credited as an OG.
No matter, they all count as they tend to say.
After “Big Quinny” had just failed to make enough of a contact with the ball in front of goal to direct it home following a cross from the left, it was 2-0 on the night. Michael Gray took the ball into the box and had two attempts at a cross blocked before the ball finally came out to Nicky Summerbee, and when “Buzzer” fired the ball back into the area it was deflected into the net by “SuperKev” from just six yards out.
3-2 then overall, and cue delirium amongst the home support as we all sensed that a date at Wembley was not too far away.
But the job was still far from completed, though “Magic” Johnston was unlucky to see his shot strike an upright - although United keeper Simon Tracey had appeared to get a vital touch, then a header from Niall Quinn forced a great save from Tracey as we continued to attack at every opportunity.
And United’s David Holdsworth was perhaps lucky only to receive a yellow card after a rather wild challenge on Michael Gray as the tension seemed to rise.
2-0 then at half-time, and the second period saw much of the same as we carried the game to The Blades.
Allan Johnston came close to increasing the lead with a curling effort which brought another great save from Simon Tracey. Up till now, Lionel Perez - our rather flamboyant French keeper - had not been unduly extended.
However, Perez proved his worth with a great block from substitute Graham Stuart and then a tremendous double save. Firstly, he pushed aside a powerful volley from Paul Devlin, then recovered superbly to block Dean Saunders’ follow-up effort to preserve our advantage, both on the night and overall.
We had further chances to add to our score but 2-0 was how it ended - mission accomplished (almost).
It had been a truly memorable night on Wearside and a deserved win.
So it was off to Wembley for a date with Charlton. And as we all know, our meeting with The Londoner’s produced perhaps the most exciting game ever seen at English football’s capital with unfortunately the wrong outcome, courtesy of “the lottery” of the penalty shoot-out, though we did of course recover in the best possible way by winning the First Division by the proverbial “country mile” in season 1998-99.
Lets hope for a similar result to that against Sheffield United as we seek to end the “Pompey jinx“ and, should we do so, hopefully it would pave the way to an immediate return to the Championship.