1997 was a bit of sad year for Sunderland AFC.
After the euphoria of the 1st Division Championship winning season of 1995-96, which meant the club would compete for the very first time in the Premier League, adjustment to life amongst England’s elite had again proved to be a bridge too far and thus we returned from whence we came after just one season upstairs.
Then came the wrench of the club leaving it’s much-loved and spiritual home of Roker Park in the summer of 1997, after a tenancy of nearly one-hundred years at the rather famous old venue which had staged some truly memorable games in its time.
Granted, we had to move with the times, and while in all truth Roker had passed it’s sell-by date, the fact that our subsequent move into a fantastic, state-of-the-art new ground on the site of the former Wearmouth colliery coincided with us having once again become second-rate citizens was a bitter pill to swallow.
Still, we had to put the disappointments of 1996-97 behind us and look ahead, and while there were perhaps mixed feelings about our immediate future there was still an underlying sense of anticipation about season 1997-98 when we were labelled as one of the pre-season promotion favourites.
But while we got off to a poor start in the shape of a 0-2 defeat at fellow promotion hopefuls Sheffield United, we soon made up for this in our first home game, an attractive affair against another fancied club, Manchester City.
The game took place on the Friday night as opposed to Saturday afternoon, though this was mainly due to the demands of SKY TV who were showing the game live. Perhaps not surprising, as it had been billed as a clash between two potential promotion contenders. And as it turned out, we were to lay on a bit of a treat for all present at our new home on the night (City fans maybe excepted), as well as the world-wide TV audience.
Peter Reid had been busy on the transfer front during the summer as he sought to boost his squad for the challenge ahead. And four new players made their home debuts v City, namely Chris Byrne, Lee Clark, Chris Makin, but perhaps most significantly, Kevin Phillips, whose signing from Watford would prove to be a masterstroke.
However, the visitors nearly gave us a scare early on when Andy Melville miscued an attempted clearance, but thankfully no City player was on hand to take advantage. Our first meaningful effort came when Melville and Steve Agnew combined well to set Chris Byrne away down the left, but his subsequent cross along the goalline eluded everyone when all it needed was the slightest of touches to turn the ball home.
Niall Quinn then had claims for a penalty turned down when he appeared to be sandwiched in the box after he’d attempted to reach a Kevin Ball cross, Ball himself then shot over the bar, while Lee Clark had a powerful effort blocked.
Then Lionel Perez had to make a couple of smart stops to deny Kevin Horlock and Uwe Rosler. But just after the quarter-hour mark we edged ahead, though we needed a bit of a helping hand from the City defence. Tony Vaughan, under no real pressure, attempted a back-pass to keeper Martyn Margetson, though this was anticipated by Niall Quinn, who nipped in and got to the ball first as the keeper rushed out and fired a low, hard shot into the corner of the net to spark wild scenes amongst the home crowd.
And City’s cause not was not helped in the twenty-fourth minute when Alan Kernaghan saw red for a second foul on Kevin Phillips, who’d turned the defender after having been picked out by a superb ball from Lee Clark.
And with a man advantage we finished the first period very much on the offensive - Steve Agnew came close to making it 2-0, Lee Clark fired over the bar after a Chris Byrne effort had been blocked, then Martyn Margetson pulled off a tremendous double save to deny first Niall Quinn and then Michael Gray.
1-0 then at the break and we continued where we left off on the resumption, with Chris Byrne in particular proving to be something of a livewire. But City nearly grabbed a somewhat underserved equaliser when a free-kick from Georgi Kinkladze beat Lionel Perez only to hit the woodwork.
Agnew, Byrne and Kevin Phillips all then came close as we continued to pound the City goal at every opportunity, but then completely against the run of play the visitors stunned the home crowd by drawing level with fifteen minutes to go. Chris Byrne, who’d had a fine game so far, blotted his copybook by bringing down Kinkladze inside the box and The Georgian took the resulting spot-kick himself, hammering the ball just of Lionel Perez’s reach into the corner of the net to send the City contingent wild with delight.
A bit of an injustice then, but could we respond positively? The answer was a very definite yes, for we went on to kill the game off with two goals inside five minutes.
In the eighty-fourth minute, and just after Lionel Perez had prevented City from taking the lead with a great save from future SAFC signing Nicky Summerbee, a free-kick from Michael Gray was headed by Niall Quinn back into the danger area to Kevin Ball. Ball swivelled smartly and hit a sweet shot which was well saved by Margetson, but the ball fell rather conveniently for Kevin Phillips, who gleefully notched his first goal in Sunderland colours.
Then six minutes later it was game over courtesy of Lee Clark’s first goal for his new club. The Tynesider cut along the edge of the City box, leaving three defenders in his wake, before firing in a daisy cutter which eluded Margetson on it’s way into the right-hand corner of the net.
3-1 then - a fine night’s work, and against a side who like ourselves no doubt had a return to the Premier League in mind. It was also a great way to get life in the league at The Stadium Of Light off the mark - it had been a thoroughly entertaining game, which was acknowledged at the final whistle by the crowd of just under 39,000.
Certainly a night to remember for all who were privileged enough to witness it.