“I thought we were going to get a replay, because the rules were broken - their player should not have been on the pitch, but it didn’t happen” - Nicky Summerbee on the last time Sunderland visited Prenton Park, Saturday 8th January 2000.
The dawn of a new millennium. Westlife sat at number one in the UK chart, Stewart Little was top of the box office and, most importantly, Sunderland sat fourth in the Premier League table.
Recalling the day, we spoke to former Sunderland players Nicky Summerbee, Alex Rae and Darren Williams to get their memories of one of the most bizarre moments in English football history.
Summerbee, now working as a television pundit in Qatar, remembers that bizarre afternoon at Prenton Park as if it was yesterday.
“We were very confident going into the game” said Summerbee.
“They had a lot of experienced players at the time, but also some good young players too, and we knew what they had done in the cup’s that year. But we were confident.”
Peter Reid’s Sunderland were handed the tough task of visiting John Aldridge’s giant killers Tranmere Rovers in the fourth round of the FA Cup, but this was golden era Sunderland - Kevin Phillips was English football’s top scorer; Wearside saw flair week in, week out, and also had a team full of passion and bottle.
On paper, Tranmere were Division One mid-table fodder, but The Whites were having some season themselves, growing particularly fond of cup competitions, already booking their place in the semi-final of the League Cup by beating Premier League side Middlesbrough and seeing off West Ham in the previous round of the FA Cup.
Sunderland may have had man-mountain Niall Quinn out injured for the game, but a star-studded starting eleven that included the likes of Phillips and Stefan Schwarz were the bookies’ favourites.
However, long before the days of Rory Delap and Tony Pulis, the team from the Wirral had perfected the long throw game themselves. Defender Dave Challinor was the unlikely chief assist-maker at Prenton Park, with Aldridge’s side packed full of wily, brutish, battle-scarred lower league players ready to launch themselves at every long Challinor throw in the hope of bundling it into the net.
Tranmere were a very different proposition than the star-studded Manchester United we had faced a fortnight before, with all the talk before the game centring around Tranmere’s Challinor and his spectacular long throw that was causing sides all number of problems.
“It was very effective. He legitimately had a dangerous throw in. I don’t think we’ve seen anyone as effective since then to be honest, but we had Steve Bould and Paul Butler at the back. Both highly experienced defenders and players you knew could sort it out.”
However, the story of the Fourth Round tie was not be about giant killing Tranmere, nor champion long thrower Challinor. Whilst it ended in a Rovers win, it was to be Challinor’s defensive partner Clint Hill that would steal the headlines in the most controversial of fashions.
“Typically, I never even noticed Clint Hill during the game to be honest with you. It was only when it come to the end of the game” said Summerbee.
Tranmere, who headed into injury time on the cusp of another giant killing, were ahead thanks to Wayne Allison’s 25th minute strike. Though Sunderland had dominated large parts of the game, a superb goalkeeping display from goalkeeper John Achterberg had kept Phillips at bay, producing save after save.
By the time the game had reached the 92nd minute, it had the feeling of a real cup tie; Summerbee throwing in cross after cross; Aldridge’s team defending for their lives; fans of both teams having hearts beaten out of their chest with anxiety, Challinor’s long throws almost doubling his teams advantage, whilst minutes before Chris Makin had almost restored parity.
Edge of the seat stuff, as they say. The FA Cup was showing its true identity, unfortunately for Peter Reid’s Sunderland.
To throw extra drama into the mix, with the closing stages proving too tense for some, Hill was sent off - his third red of the season - when he was given a second yellow card for dissent following the awarding of a dangerously positioned free-kick on the edge of the Tranmere box. Referee Rob Harris gave him his marching orders, and directed him off the pitch.
And that’s when the real drama started.
In the melee of the atmosphere, Hill continued to shrug his shoulders and show his vocal disagreement with referee Harris, whilst Aldridge and his backroom staff got defender Stephen Frail stripped, as they threw on a replacement defender for the final throws of Sunderland’s FA Cup dice.
However, with Hill still walking off the pitch, Frail bizarrely entered the field of play and proceeded to defend the aforementioned free-kick - and just like that Tranmere had seemingly substituted the sent-off Hill for Frail.
But it did not take long for the Sunderland bench to realise, with Adrian Heath in particular blowing a blood vessel or two. The game had erupted in frantic fashion.
“I knew Clint was sent off but didn’t realise they had pulled a stroke till almost the end of the game” said Alex Rae, who had battled in the engine room that day.
Manager Reid, typically, was front and centre of the melee, as the former Evertonian showed his disdain for former Liverpool player Aldridge for what was, seemingly, gamesmanship at it’s very worst.
It was a moment former Sunderland defender Darren Williams describes as “a disgrace”.
“It seemed like the ref didn’t have control. I was shocked that they were able to get away with it” said Williams, obviously still incensed now remembering the moment.
Team mate Rae hadn’t realised the severity of the misdemeanour till afterwards: “Adrian [Heath] thought we had been cheated and looking back it was a proper stroke pulled by Aldridge - the old shark.”
“It was like Billy Smart’s circus out there” said Reid, after the game. “I don’t like talking about officials instead of football - but someone has made a major error”.
Tranmere, once they had successfully defended the free kick with an extra man on the pitch, eventually removed striker Andy Parkinson from the field as chaos reigned in the dugouts.
Tranmere would go on to see out the final thirty seconds and win the tie, but talk of a replay was abound as soon as the whistle was blown. Tranmere had broken the rules, after all.
However, despite calls for the match to be replayed, The FA’s Challenge Cup Committee decided John Aldridge’s side had not “knowingly and deliberately distorted the outcome of the game” and the Wirral side went on to face Fulham in the fifth round.
“If that was today, a replay is the least you would get” remarked Rae.
Referee Rob Harris would go on to be suspended by the FA for a full month following the chaotic scenes, with an FA spokesman saying:
The Premier League have decided not to use Rob Harris and Tony Green as match officials pending the outcome of the FA hearing on this matter.
For those involved and the fans that made the journey, it was a game that could never be forgotten, such was its absurdity - and one thing is for sure, if Tranmere get a man sent off tonight, there’ll be plenty of Wearside eyes watching their bench with scrutiny.