Friday 15 August 1997 was a hot day and the evening equally balmy as Sunderland supporters made their way to the club’s new home.
41,600 had turned up to watch a goalless inaugural friendly with Ajax two weeks previously and, although slightly fewer people turned up for the club’s first competitive league game at its new home, they were rewarded with more to see.
Supporters who knew the geography of Roker Park down to the unevenness of a step or the wear on a stanchion found themselves befuddled by this newfound land.
Never mind piling into the Fulwell End just before kick-off: this place was all seats and one end pretty much looked like the other. Such was the confusion that the start was delayed as people wandered around the ground, peering at their tickets as if they were written in some sort of unbreakable code. The Red Devils had no such problems finding their way, parachuting in, suitably attired in the new white-collared Aasics home kit.
Manchester City kicked off and did something I have rarely seen. For a good ten years of my life (or at least it felt like that) I was used to Sunderland kick-offs as a quick tap forward knocked back to someone sat on the edge of the centre circle who would then loft the ball forward to their left, hoping for Gordon Armstrong to get a flick-on... but usually resulting in an opposition throw.
Manchester City did take the tap and knock back to the edge of the box but Georgiou Kinkladze had no Gordon Armstrong to aim at and, quite frankly, wasn’t the hoof-it-forward type.
He went past two midfielders and then another and, by the time he reached our right-back Chris Makin, I thought he was just going to try to dribble it in to our net, oblivious to his team-mates, school playground style.
The heavy cavalry arrived in the form of Kevin Ball and Kinkladze was coaxed away by him and two others.
An aside: Kevin Ball was wearing what is formerly known in this game as a nasal strip. An iconic image of Kevin Ball from this era, and perhaps an actual ‘A Love Supreme’ cover, would feature him wearing one of these. What happened to them? They came and – like fidget spinners and that craze where kids were flipping their bottles on tables – they went.
Sunderland started the game well.
Our recent experience is that you can get relegated and just keep going... down. But this team, just relegated from the top tier, had the makings of something special.
Niall Quinn put us 1-0 up early on following a poorly judged back pass which he intercepted and put away. In doing this, he became the first person to score for Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
I’m sure we would all agree that there is nobody more fitting for such a memorable future pub quiz question.
We stepped up a level and, even before Alan Kernaghan got sent off for them, unable to deal with Kevin Phillips’ excellent movement, we looked on top.
Down to ten men on twenty-four minutes, we battered them. Their keeper, Marytyn Margetson, played well to keep them in it.
It was an enjoyable game but confusing as to who everybody was in our new-look side. Chris Byrne, Lee Clark and Kevin Phillips were all of a similar stature, they all played well, and they all had a similar short-hair cut.
As in all games where there is only a goal in it, the opposition have always got a chance, no matter how unlikely. That chance came and was taken by Kinkladze sometime past seventy minutes. He won a penalty, scored a penalty, and was so good that he got booed every time he got the ball after that.
But where-as Manchester City had a great player in Kinkladze, we were showing signs of developing a great team.
Say what you want about Lee Clark, he was an excellent footballer who always wanted the ball and was very tidy in possession. Such qualities became apparent to anybody with any knowledge of the game after about, say, maybe three minutes of kick-off.
The midfield blend of him and Kevin Ball would win a lot of games for us in the coming two seasons. Micky Gray, with that rare combination of speed and stamina, went through the gears for the full ninety minutes and Chris Byrne showed us what a promising career, then, lay before him.
The tragedy of Chris Byrne is perhaps inversely proportionate to the triumph of Kevin Phillips.
Even before he smashed us back in to the lead on eighty-four minutes it was clear that Phillips wasn’t just an exciting forward, but a very good footballer. He was busy outside the box and his enormous desire to do well was apparent as he celebrated his goal.
I had been at Sheffield United the week before. We had lost and Paul McGrath had been magisterial for them in the centre of their defence. Kevin Phillips hadn’t played but Niall Quinn had. It is the sort of detail we like to forget now but I remember he got a bit of stick in that game from some supporters.
They were naturally thinking about the Niall Quinn who had been injured and had never shown his true ability for us yet.
Against Manchester City he showed glimpses of the heavyweight ability he would go on to terrorise opposition defences with for a golden quadrennial period to come.
Nicky Summerbee – who’d go on to be an integral part of the Sunderland side only three months later – failed to convert a good chance to put Manchester City ahead late in the game.
He also engaged in what now seems a curious spat with Chris Makin – Makin feigning to throw the ball at him. But, as said, Phillips scored and then Clark got another. The win was well deserved and great to watch.
Manchester City ended the season third from bottom, and we ended third from top. The Charlton game casts a shadow over the 1997-1998 campaign, but we watched an exciting team win some memorable matches over the course of the season.
That night in August 1997 was just the start of it.