3rd May 1997 - a rather poignant date in the history of Sunderland AFC.
This was not only the occasion of the last home league fixture of 1996-97 but also, more significantly, it signalled the end of competitive football at Roker Park after a long and proud run of almost one hundred years.
The 1996-97 campaign - our first-ever in the Premier League - had perhaps not surprisingly proved to be one of struggle, thus three points from Everton were essential.
However the task would not necessarily be easy, for The Toffees themselves were not yet mathematically assured of survival, so Roker Park’s last-ever league fixture promised to be a competitive as well as nostalgic affair.
One significant change to our starting line-up was the recall of Niall Quinn, for what was the big Irishman’s first league start since September.
So with the crowd of just over 22,000 expectant and in good spirits we began by attacking the Roker End, though the first chance of sorts fell to Duncan Ferguson, but thankfully he sliced his effort wide. Michael Gray then had to be alert to foil the visitor’s Michael Branch, who’d threatened on the wing.
It was in fact a nervous start by both sides, perhaps not surprising in view of what was at stake, but particularly perhaps for ourselves. And this was exemplified when in our first real attack, and following a cross from Chris Waddle which found Niall Quinn, the latter’s header lacked any real power and Everton keeper Neville Southall saved comfortably.
Indeed, all of our attacks at this stage tended to fizzle out before they’d gained any real momentum. It was the visitors who looked more threatening up front, a fact emphasised when they gained a corner in the twentieth minute which caused a fair bit of anxiety in our defence - Duncan Ferguson then came close with an acrobatic overhead kick, before both Kevin Ball and Michael Gray both had to be alert to relieve dangerous situations.
We then had an incredible let-off when Terry Phelan’s cross was met by Duncan Ferguson. The Scotsman's powerful header was turned away from under by Lionel Perez, only for the ball to fall at the feet of Nicky Barmby, who it seemed could hardly miss. But just when we appeared resigned to going 0-1 down, quite inexplicably, the ex-Spurs midfielder ballooned the ball high over the bar and into the Fulwell End crowd from only six yards out.
Myself and indeed most of Roker Park breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Undeterred, The Toffees continued to press as our lads seemed visibly affected by the tension of the occasion, and as such were unable to string even two decent passes together. And Ferguson should really have done better after having been set up by Branch, then Lionel Perez had to be alert to deny the giant Scotsman, after he chased a through ball.
Then in a somewhat rare Sunderland attack a cross from Paul Stewart picked out Niall Quinn in a good position, but his subsequent shot was off-target.
Branch then missed a good chance for the visitors after a Barmby corner, but then just after the half-hour mark the ground erupted when we forced a vital breakthrough, even though in all fairness it came against he overall run of play.
A cross into the Everton box was handled by Ferguson, who was booked for contesting the decision, and when order was restored Paul Stewart settled the nerves of both players and fans alike by coolly converting the spot-kick, to give us a vital 1-0 half-time lead.
The relief was palpable.
We began the second period with recent signing Allan Johnston on in place of Gareth Hall, and this was to prove an inspired move by Peter Reid, for in his first real contribution to the game the Scottish winger was almost put through by an astute pass by Chris Waddle.
Indeed, the manager’s half-time talk seemed to have done the trick as we now seemed more transformed and positive as we began to take the game to Everton, though we were still guilty of squandering one or two good chances.
But in the fifty-seventh minute, we gave ourselves a bit of breathing space with a second goal, and what a goal it was. Neville Southall was penalized for carrying the ball outside his area, which resulted in the award of a direct free-kick. And Chris Waddle stepped up to fire an unstoppable left-foot shot into the top right-hand corner of the net, with the Welsh International keeper more or less rooted to the spot as Roker Park erupted in scenes of joy.
However the visitors were far from finished, and Lee Howey, Michael Gray and Richard Ord all had to make clearances to relieve threatening situations, but then Duncan Ferguson turned defender to clear another free-kick by Chris Waddle off the line.
Allan Johnston had shown up well since appearing as a second-half substitute, but after sixty-eight minutes he was to really prove his worth with his first goal for the club. Chris Waddle did the spadework when he crossed from the left to pick out “Magic” at the far post, and the ex-Hearts man beat Southall with a powerful header, for a third and killer goal.
Lionel Perez then had to be alert as Everton tried to respond.
Firstly the Frenchman dealt comfortably with a free-kick, then he saved bravely at the feet of Claus Thomsen. However, we continued to hold the upper hand, though we were unable to add to our goals tally in the final stages. But still, we’d achieved what we set out to, having not only clinched a vital three points but also brought Roker Park’s life as a Football League/Premier League ground to a rather fitting end.
And come full-time, the team was given a standing ovation, while the lads later did a lap of honour round the pitch in appreciation.
The win also lifted us out of the bottom due to results elsewhere having worked in our favour, however our survival was still far from assured, and would yet again go to the wire as it were.
And sadly there was to be no fairytale ending for in a scenario similar to May 1977, our association with the top-flight again proved to be all-too-brief, as on the final day of the season defeat for us at Selhurst Park v Wimbledon, coupled with perennial escapologists Coventry’s win at Spurs, meant the Highfield Road side again escape at our expense.
Maybe a bit ironic, and immediate relegation from England’s top flight was not really a fitting way for us to begin life at our super new stadium at Wearmouth - though as fate would have it better times would soon be with us again.