Two things are well known about this game. Firstly, it was Jan Eriksson’s swansong Premier League appearance for us and part from picking up a yellow card, I don’t remember him doing much else of note.
Although he wasn’t bad that night at Villa Park, he didn’t exactly earn a tremendous ovation from the away support on the final whistle, but we never saw him play for us in the League again - had we known we might have made more of an effort.
I’ve certainly seen worse debuts and against worse teams, but Eriksson had good pedigree, having racked up over thirty appearances for Sweden, but that was him done and I got to see him play in a red and white shirt.
I wonder which players you have seen for us and can reflect: not many people saw them play. I also saw Brian Mooney play for us. Not many people can say that, I thought, but when I checked the stats I’m informed he had over twenty appearances for us. It doesn’t feel like that in retrospect.
The second thing of note about this fixture is Bobby Saxton’s half time team talk. We would know nothing about this if it wasn’t for the BBC documentary ‘Premier Passions’ but Bobby Saxton is universally well spoken of by the former players we have heard from in the intervening years.
At Villa Park twenty-three years ago, his robust half-time instructions were aimed primarily at the defence. As a former centre-back and having played at a pretty high level myself, (Weston-super-Mare and District League Division 4 was the apex) I was very interested in the advice given. Essentially it was about not giving the forwards room to spin off their markers and then run with the ball unchallenged.
I do wonder what Jan Eriksson made of the demonstrative and colourful team talk. Most Scandinavians have very good English but no amount of GCSE type schooling in ‘where is the train station?’ conversation could prepare you for Bobby Saxton.
If you had seen Villa’s first half goal, however, you would concede that the assistant manager had a point. Savo Milosevic had plenty of room to run at the defence before hitting an unconvincing grass-cutter which bobbled past Lionel Perez and into the corner of the net, deflecting off Eriksson on the way.
I had turned up with my older brother to this game with relatively high hopes. Sunderland had battled through to that point of the season and were still somewhere around the middle of the table. On the way in we had a small bet on Dickie Ord to score. The odds were very good and he was known to nab the odd one from corners: alas, two pounds wasted.
Just before the game David Kelly was warming up and for some reason came into the stand to give a fan his Avec training jacket. I don’t know why but it seemed a nice thing to do.
From the kick-off, in our very swish white v-necked away shirts, we faced a difficult challenge. Villa were a good side that season, eventually finishing fifth. They had Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu at the back and plenty of quality around them.
They also had Mark Bosnich in goal who many people will remember from a League Cup game at Roker Park in 1993. In popular memory Bosnich made about 137 key saves to keep Ron Atkinson’s side in that game and they went on to win by an insanely flattering 4-1 scoreline.
In the game in question we had good players like Paul Bracewell and Alex Rae on the pitch but we lacked strength in depth and the excellent attitude of our team could not make up for this. This point is supported by a look at our bench where we had David Preece, Paul Heckingbottom, Darren Holloway, Craig Russell and Martin Smith: talented but young. We were also missing Kevin Ball and I don’t think for a second he would have given Savo Milosevic so much room to turn.
Despite our shortfalls there was only one goal in it and Sunderland created some good chances as the game wore on. However, despite our effort we did not get any reward. In some ways the game was a metaphor for a season where we competed all the way to the end and were relegated on the last day, away to Wimbledon, with forty points.
The 1996-1997 season has some parallels with the relegation of 1991. Both times our failure came after a single season in the top flight and both times the fans backed a willing team all the way to the end. These campaigns contrast bleakly with some of our post-2000 relegations.
Fast forward nine years from this game of 1997 and I was watching Sunderland play a few miles from Villa Park at St Andrews when Birmingham City beat us 1-0 in February 2006. The utter dejection from first to last minute in the away stand was not something we experienced in 1997 - despite our ultimate failure back then.
After relegation in May 1997 we would play some of our best football in most supporters’ living memory in getting back to the top division in 1999, but such hindsight doesn’t pay due respect to the disappointment felt at the time.