After our First Division Championship success of 1995-96, our first-ever season in the English Premiership was no doubt keenly anticipated.
However, not too surprisingly, adjustment to life amongst England’s elite in 1996-97 proved to be no easy matter - although by the turn of the year, we appeared to be fairly comfortably placed in mid-table after some fairly solid, if not necessarily spectacular form during the first few months of the campaign.
Things then started to go wrong, and a run of just one win in thirteen games from mid-January to mid-April set the alarm bells ringing as we plunged down the table to find ourselves in third-bottom spot with just four games to go.
A 1-0 win v Middlesbrough in a vital relegation six-pointer at The Riverside halted the bad run, and at the same time lifted us out of the bottom three, but defeat in another crucial relegation clash against Southampton at Roker just four days after the Middlesbrough victory saw us more or less back to square one.
Thankfully, we regained our composure in time to chalk up a rather priceless 3-0 success against Everton in what was not only the last home fixture of 1996-97, but also the final-ever competitive game at Roker, to give ourselves fresh hope that we may avoid an instant return downstairs.
In spite of this welcome and timely win we remained fourth from bottom, and just two points better off then than third-bottom Coventry City. To complicate matters a bit further, Middlesbrough - who lay in second-bottom spot - had two games in hand over us, both mid-week affairs. They proceeded to take only two points from these two games, thus by the time the final weekend of the season came round bottom club Nottingham Forest were already down and out, while Boro, like Coventry, were two points behind us.
We faced an all-too-familiar scenario, needing a result on the final day of the season in order to have a chance of survival, but we couldn’t really have picked a worse team to come up against - “The crazy gang” of Wimbledon at Selhurst Park.
To make our task that little bit harder, “The Wombles” also needed a result in order to have an outside chance of European qualification. So it promised to be a tense and nerve-wracking afternoon at Selhurst Park, on Sunday, 11th May 1997, where we set about our survival task. We were backed by a sizeable following, no doubt most of whom were armed with transistor radios - awaiting news from Elland Road where Leeds hosted Middlesbrough, and White Hart Lane, where Spurs entertained Coventry.
The first half-hour or so belonged to our hosts, who subjected us to a fair amount of pressure - though without being able to find the killer blow. We gradually began to find our feet, though the tension of the occasion seemed to get to us, when we passed up one or two decent chances. Chris Waddle fired a free-kick high and wide, before Niall Quinn had penalty claims turned down.
Wimbledon were by no means finished as an attacking force, and after Dean Holdsworth had fired straight at Lionel Perez the home side appeared to have justifiable claims for a penalty turned down when Oyvind Leonhardsen seemed to be wrestled to the ground by Darren Williams.
The first-half ended goalless, but when news came through that Coventry were winning at Spurs, the pressure on us to get a result cranked up a notch or two. But to our credit, we started the second period with more urgency - though we missed another great chance when Niall Quinn set up a shooting opportunity for Chris Waddle, who instead of going for goal tried to return the ball to “Quinnie“, and the Wimbledon defence was able to clear.
We then had to endure a rather sustained Wimbledon assault, and after Gareth Hall had done well to get in a timely blocking tackle, Lionel Perez then came to our rescue with a fine save from a Peter Fear header.
With time running out, Peter Reid replaced Chris Waddle and Paul Bracewell with Craig Russell and Allan Johnston respectively as we sought the vital breakthrough. Russell made an instant impact when he sent over a well-measured cross to find Paul Stewart, but unfortunately the latter couldn’t direct his header on target.
This miss was to come back to haunt us. We were dealt a sickening blow in the eighty-fourth minute when Wimbledon, having missed a great chance only a minute earlier, broke the deadlock. Dean Holdsworth burst down the left flank, before squaring the ball to Jason Euell, who side-footed the ball home past the helpless Lionel Perez. Gut-wrenching.
So it was now very much a case of all hands to the pump, and we poured forward in a bid to rescue not just the game, but also our Premiership status - though when Allan Johnston headed a good chance over the top, and Michael Bridges hit a post, you just sensed that it wasn’t going to be our day.
The final whistle not too surprisingly brought about an air of dejection amongst our followers, though there was still one last hope. The Spurs v Coventry game had been delayed due to traffic/crowd congestions (shades of 1977 perhaps?), and the score still stood at 2-1 to The Sky Blues, but if Spurs could nick an equalizer, then Coventry would accompany Middlesbrough (who’d only managed a draw at Leeds) and Forest into the First Division.
But sadly, Gordon Strachan’s side managed to hold out for the three points, which meant we made an immediate return downstairs after another all-too-brief taste of life at the very top.
It was long and no doubt miserable return to Wearside for players, management and fans.
It was a rather reminiscent of our rather sad exit from the old First Division six years previous, in spite of a brave effort on the final day of 1990-91 at Manchester City, backed by another sizeable following from Wearside.
While it was also rather ironic that those perennial escapologists Coventry should be one of the sides to escape at our expense, in what was more or less a carbon-copy of those well-documented, well-debated etc. events of May 1977. Who says that history doesn’t repeat?
You could argue that fate had been cruel to us, then again, and as had been the case in 1990-91, it was the failure to strengthen our squad adequately to cope with the demands of the top flight, which had been a major contributory factor in our rather sad demise.
Indeed, the fact that Craig Russell and Paul Stewart were our top league goalscorers with a paltry four goals apiece tended to say rather a lot.
So we were left to contemplate yet another top-flight demotion, our sixth in total, a bit of a damning statistic. Not then, an ideal way to begin life at our super new stadium at Wearmouth.
However, we soon put the nightmare of 1996-97 behind us in the best possible fashion, for in spite of a the agony of defeat courtesy of a penalty shoot-out in the First Division play-off final in 1998, season 1998-99 saw us sweep all before us, as we returned to the Premiership as runaway First Division Champions. Oh, for those days again...