Early March 1997 was a bit of a depressing time for all connected with Sunderland AFC. For following on from a narrow 0-1 defeat at Blackburn on the first Saturday of the month, the team had then plummeted to new depths in mid-week when they were embarrassed, 0-4 by Tottenham Hotspur, in one of the most one-sided games ever witnessed at Roker Park.
Indeed, the Spurs game was in all truth a case of men against boys, and had the visitors won by 10-0 we couldn’t have had cause for complaint. This rather pitiful capitulation was our fourth league defeat on the bounce, forming part of a run of six win-less games, which had plunged us from the comparative safety of mid-table into the thick of the relegation battle. Things were looking a bit bleak to say the least.
Thus there was perhaps a fair amount of apprehension in the Wearside air ahead of our next game, which couldn’t have been harder; at home versus Premier League leaders Manchester United, who had their eyes on a League/Champions League double.
No doubt Alex Ferguson and his side saw us ideal fodder in their bid for more glory, particularly as they tanned us by 5-0 at Old Trafford just before Christmas. However, maybe someone hadn’t written the script right, for just as they’d done on several previous occasions - most notably perhaps on 5th May 1973 - Sunderland were once again to rise to the occasion and produce a result which illustrated that favourites don’t always emerge victorious, and that the underdogs can sometimes spring a surprise.
We began in a positive fashion when Michael Bridges fired in a shot from the edge of the area, which United keeper Peter Schmeichel needed two attempts to save. The Dane then nearly paid a heavy price for a piece of extravagance, when he attempted to juggle a long Sunderland ball on his chest, only for Kevin Ball to rush in and charge the ball down. The ‘keeper was lucky to see the ball travel behind for a goal-kick.
But United soon responded through David Beckham, Eric Cantona and Karel Poborsky, though our defence - and in particular Richard Ord - dealt competently with the visitors potent attacking threat.
However, we were soon back on the offensive. John Mullin and Michael Bridges combined well to set up Michael Gray, who was perhaps unlucky to have claims for a penalty turned down after he ended up on the floor after a clash with Poborsky. Poborsky and Gary Neville then threatened for United, but the combined efforts of two defenders and keeper Lionel Perez were able to snuff out the threat.
Then in the twentieth minute came our best move of the game so far, when Paul Bracewell and Mullin combined superbly to present a chance for Michael Bridges, who unfortunately failed to find a way through the United defence. Bridges was then well off-target with a shot from a narrow angle. Richard Ord, who’d been rather commanding at the back for us, snuffed out a dangerous run by Jordi Cruyff, before blocking a shot from Eric Cantona.
Schmeichel had to go down low to gather a shot from Gareth Hall, a cross from David Kelly just eluded Kevin Ball, then in United’s best move so far, a defence-splitting pass from David Beckham put Eric Cantona through one-on-one with with his fellow Frenchman Lionel Perez only for the United striker’s effort was well wide of the mark.
In fact David Beckham and Karel Poborsky appeared like Rolls Royces in the visitors midfield, but such was the effective blanketing job done by our defence and midfield that the United duo were never really given a chance to truly shine. Just before half-time, Ord and Bridges combined well to cause some anxiety in United’s defence but the first-half, which had been fairly evenly balanced, ended goalless.
We came out unchanged for the second period, in which United were first to show up in attack, but Perez comfortably gathered a cross from Phil Neville.
But it was much closer soon after, for when a left-wing cross from Gary Neville picked out Eric Cantona, the fiery Frenchman’s header was only inches over the top. Having weathered this bout of pressure, we then went back up-field, and after John Mullin had had a goal-bound effort blocked by Gary Neville, forced the vital breakthrough.
A cross on the right from Gareth Hall was only parried away by Peter Schmeichel into the path of Michael Gray, who gleefully forced the ball home to send the Fulwell End and indeed most of Roker Park ecstatic.
United, stung by this setback, responded immediately but our back four and keeper Lionel Perez, despite being subjected to a fair amount of pressure, still coped capably. But we then twice nearly added to our lead when Kelly played in Mullin, only for a superb reflex save from Schmeichel which prevented his side from gong further behind, the ‘keeper turning the midfielder’s powerful effort over the bar in fine style.
Then Michael Gray went on a scintillating run which took him into the United box, but instead of passing to Michael Bridges, who appeared better placed to take advantage, Gray went for glory only to see his effort just clear Schmeichel’s far post.
The visitors kept up their efforts to find an equaliser but found our defence and Lionel Perez in a rather defiant mood. Then in the seventy-sixth minute came the second goal which we’d been threatening; a long ball forward saw both John Mullin and Craig Russell in a race for the ball with United defender David May, but it was Mullin who won the chase and he slotted the ball past the advancing Schmeichel and into the net despite the keeper getting a touch.
However, just three minutes later, we found our advantage halved, as United pulled a goal back to set up a storming finish, though they needed a helping hand. For when David Beckham fired a free-kick into our box, the ball struck the unfortunate Andy Melville and rebounded into the net, leaving Lionel Perez quite helpless.
So 2-1 then, tenterhooks time again. Could we hold our for a vital win?
Well, Craig Russell almost made it 3-1 after a storming run, when he saw his shot saved by Schmeichel. Then when played switched to the other end a timely intervention by Paul Bracewell thwarted a potentially dangerous raid by Eric Cantona, and we continued to live on our nerves before Craig Russell sidefooted narrowly wide. With the crowd whistling for full-time, a brave Andy Melville challenge halted the lively Cantona - our hearts were then in our mouths when ex-mag Andy Cole hit the side netting, before John Mullin forced a fine save from Schmeichel.
But we held out for the win, one which moved us up one place in the Premier League table, seven points off the bottom three, though we had played two games more than some of our companions-in-distress.
One may well have argued that United’s mid-week Champions League exploits against Porto had taken their toll but no-one should have discredited Sunderland, whose hard-working performance thoroughly merited the much-needed win, which of course also exacted retribution for hammering we took from United earlier in the season.
This memorable victory would surely live on in the minds of our fans for a long time and was the perfect morale-booster ahead of our next two games - tricky trips to Sheffield Wednesday and Chelsea - while it also gave genuine hope that survival was a realistic proposition.