19th September 1998 is a day which has stuck in my mind in the years that have since passed, and I guess this may also be the case with other fans of Sunderland too, for this was the day when we produced the best-ever win seen at The Stadium Of Light in its short life, with Oxford United the side unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end.
The cherry on the cake was that this record-establishing win was achieved without our regular striking due of Phillips and Quinn, though the latter did make an appearance in the second-half - although, by that stage, the game was already put to bed.
This emphasised just what a strong squad we had at the time, when we could call upon strength in depth in all positions as we made up for the disappointment of having missed out on promotion in 1997-98 in quite emphatic fashion.
We’d began season 1998-99 in a convincing manner, and as such had topped the Division One table at the end of August. But September had begun in a rather tentative fashion, with back-to-back 1-1 draws at home v Bristol City, then at another of the promotion favourites Wolves - though we’d beaten Chester City 3-0 at home in the Worthington Cup.
However, in the latter game, star striker Kevin Phillips had suffered a toe injury which would ultimately keep him out of the side until after Christmas. This meant that for the visit of Oxford United we’d have a new-look strike force of Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges, but as events turned out neither were to disappoint.
The visitors received an early warning of what was to come when, in a lightning attack, Dichio sent in a well-hit shot which was well saved by Oxford keeper Phil Whitehead.
We were soon back to take a third-minute lead, when Michael Gray picked out Nicky Summerbee and “Buzzer” advanced into the Oxford area, only to lose possession after being challenged. However, the ball broke for Darren Williams, who clipped the ball across the face of goal to find Michael Bridges, who scored easily from close range. The floodgates had opened.
And the cheers had barely died down when just three minutes later it was 2-0. A promising run by John Mullin was checked just outside the box by United midfielder David Smith, who was perhaps lucky to escape with only a booking. Michael Gray took the resulting free-kick and placed the ball low and hard into the net via the upright.
Oxford were clearly stunned by conceding these early goals and they responded immediately, with Paul Gilchrist sending an effort just over the top following a free-kick from Les Robinson, then Dean Windass fired in a thirty-five yarder which comfortably cleared Thomas Sorensen’s crossbar.
The “Great Dane” was then called into meaningful action for the first time when a Paul Powell cross was dummied by Windass to find Andy Thomson, the latter’s close-range effort was superbly blocked by our Danish custodian before Michael Gray cleared the loose ball.
Normal service was soon resumed, and after we’d had a penalty appeal turned down when Allan “Magic” Johnston appeared to be felled inside the area, Michael Bridges then went close. Dichio had a header saved by Whitehead, then Bridges then thought he’d scored goal number three following good work from Gray and Johnston, but the young striker’s effort was disallowed after the referee ruled that he’d fouled the keeper.
We continued to press, causing one or two anxious moments in the visitors defence. Oxford were by no means out of it, a fact emphasised when Sorensen was forced to make his second great save of the game when he dived to tip away a fierce drive from Smith.
Then two minutes before half-time came the third goal we’d been threatening, though it did come from the penalty spot. Dichio and Summerbee combined well to set up Johnston, who was felled by Robinson inside the area, and Dichio successfully converted the kick to give us a rather unassailable 3-0 interval lead.
Would there be more of the same to come in the second-half? You bet! We made it 4-0 after fifty-two minutes when Allan Johnston picked out Alex Rae, who’d made a well-timed run into the box, and he finished with some aplomb.
Then just three minutes hence we went further ahead with another rather exquisite effort. This time, a great pass from Summerbee picked out Dichio, who played a perfectly-timed ball to Bridges who gleefully claimed his second goal of the game.
It was more or less one-way traffic at this stage of proceedings, and indeed, it must have appeared like target practice for the home side. An effort by Dichio was chalked off for offside before Sorensen had to make one or two routines saves, then Summerbee and Johnston both came close to adding to the lead before we made it 6-0, the move being started and finished by Danny Dichio.
Firstly, he intercepted a ball on the right and played the ball to Michael Bridges inside the box. The youngster’s shot was blocked, but the ball came back to Dichio, who put himself on course for a hat-trick when he fired the ball home from a rather narrow angle.
I guess you just had to feel a bit of sympathy for Oxford, who must have been well and truly shell-shocked by this stage, and no doubt felt like lambs to the slaughter.
But the red and white onslaught continued relentlessly, and Rae had an effort tipped over by Whitehead.
Quinn then replaced Dichio, and the big Irishman was to play a part in the seventh goal eight minutes from time thanks to another great move which cut the visitors to ribbons. Johnston and Quinn combined well, and when the ball was played to Bridges he turned superbly before playing a perfectly-weighted pass to Rae, who made no mistake from eight yards to become the third Sunderland player of the afternoon to claim a brace.
Rae, Ball and Summerbee then had chances to have compounded the visitor’s misery, but 7-0 was how it finished, and doubtless poor Oxford were glad when the ordeal finally ended - though our own lads not surprisingly left the field to rapturous applause.
It was a great way to return to winning ways in the league and the perfect boost ahead of two successive tricky away trips to Portsmouth and Norwich.