Two years prior, in 1996, was my first visit to Molineux which incidentally coincided with the first time I’d just turned up to a game on my own. The Sunderland fans were spread out in a lower tier of a main stand, turning out in our large numbers as ever to get behind the side.
A side that, even though contained the likes of Paul Bracewell, Phil Gray, Micky Gray and two tidy full backs in Scott and Kubicki, lost 3-0. To rub salt in the wounds, we were two down after twenty minutes and ex-Sunderland striker Don Goodman scored for the home side.
It was a woeful performance, and yet we won the League that year. We didn’t lose in the next eighteen games after that; this included a nine game winning streak. As somebody who didn’t get to many games, I was left to ponder the significance of turning up to one of the worst defeats of the season.
If you go every week you take the rough with the rough but at some point there is usually the smooth. There are exceptions however, if you sat through the whole of the 2005-06 season you deserve the SAFC equivalent of a Purple Heart. But fans always turn up, whatever the circumstances, hoping that against the odds, it will be their day.
Back in 1996 I had travelled to visit family in Sutton Coldfield. They weren’t into football at all and we were only visiting for a weekend but I explained: “there’s this game...”
Fast forward two years to February 1998 and I inexplicably find history repeating itself. I was reminded that they had lost badly the last time I had gone - “I know”, I said, but with that attitude no-one would ever go.
It was a slow journey zig-zagging across Greater Birmingham and into the heart of the Black Country. I had to get a bus from Sutton Coldfield to Walsall, and then another from there to Wolverhampton. I knew I was in the right place when I saw the big orange bubble of Molineux and the guy selling ALS outside the away end.
The game started badly for us. Wolves had the upper hand and as the first half wore on it became increasingly likely they would score. They were a strong team - Don Goodman was playing and they had the likes of Dean Richards and Keith Curle at the back. Earlier in the season we had only managed a draw with them back at the Stadium of Light.
At one point of the half a young Wolves player picked up the ball near the edge of their box and carried it to the edge of ours without anyone getting anywhere near him. This lad, a certain Robbie Keane, did this with such ease. I’d come in hoping for a win. Now I started to wonder: can we get a draw?
As had happened two years before, some Sunderland fans were making wild and threatening gestures to those who were in the executive boxes just behind the away section. Those in the boxes would make signs from behind the safety of the perspex and the odd fan would stand up and bang on the window, asking for a fight. I imagine this went on most weeks at Molineux.
At some point I said to the man next to me that the game wasn’t going well. He said something I’ve never forgotten, something so hopeful, it was as if you could screw up all the years of disappointment into a ball and casually roll it away because now, things had changed. Don’t worry, he said, we always have a spell, we always do these days: we’re too good not to.
I marvelled. Faith such as this I had not seen. But he was right. The glory years under Reid arguably started when we thrashed almost everyone in the 1998-99 season but there were a good number of great wins the year before. The pervious season was something different from what we had seen in the early nineties. One difference was that people, like the guy watching next to me, went to games expecting something to happen.
One of the most striking differences was the amount of players who wanted the ball and were happy to keep it. Lee Clark and Nicky Summerbee come to mind. Allan Johnston also. Like Summerbee, he was not to be hurried. In fact, Johnston hit the post in that dire first half, giving us some hope for the second.
The half ended goalless and in the second half we were better. Danny Dichio came on midway through, to join Quinn and Phillips up front. What a handful that was for the experienced Wolves defence.
You began to sense that the game could turn and deep into the final minutes Sunderland got a free kick just outside the centre of their area. Even the executive box contingent stopped to watch as Allan Johnston smashed the ball off the bar. Not our day.
The ball was cleared but came straight back up the pitch, bouncing around, but always finding one of our players. Wolves chased it with some desperation. The ball came into their box again. Somebody played it back – probably Phillips and it fell to Kevin Ball just behind him.
Is Kevin Ball left-footed? I have no idea - but a better struck left foot shot he never did hit. The ball flew into the top corner of the net and everybody went absolutely mental (this is what I remember more than the goal) as if every single supporter had scored themselves, and one man on the back of a plastic chair, banging on the executive box window shouting: “did you see that, did you?!”... amongst other things.
As I sat on the bus from Wolverhampton to Walsall with all the opposition fans on the way back, and the guy next to me told me how he could not, just could not, believe they had lost, I felt absolutely euphoric.
Earlier in the season I’d been to the Reading debacle. Ten days after the Wolves game we played Reading again, at home. and you could sense the incredible optimism as 40,579 people turned up... on a Tuesday night.