On this day in 1997 Sunderland would take a beating that would act as the catalyst for what turned out to be four of the most successful years in the clubs recent history. As is quite often the case when it comes to Sunderland, it was a time full of emotional turmoil.
The final season at Roker Park didn’t have the fairytale ending that we were hoping and relations between club and fans were strained to put it politely. People were looking for who to blame for being relegated from the Premier League in a season where emotions were exponentially amplified through having to leave Roker Park behind.
Some blamed the board for not putting their hands in their pockets and some blamed the manager for not spending the money that was apparently at his disposal. Either way it was clear that after the odd, subdued atmosphere of the final game at Roker Park against Liverpool that the club needed to be picked up again.
The opening of the Stadium of Light went some way to wiping memories of the events only two months prior, which not only showcased the brand spanking new 42,000 capacity all-seater stadium on the old site of Wearmouth Colliery, but also presented new signings Lee Clark, Kevin Phillips, Edwin Zoetebier and Chris Byrne.
With fans back on board and finally looking ahead to a new era in a new home, Peter Reid’s side lost three of the first four. Other than a blistering start to life at the Stadium of Light against Manchester City that Sunderland won 3-1, defeats to Sheffield United, Port Vale and Norwich City had left us sitting in 17th position in the Nationwide Football League Division One.
An upturn in fortunes followed until a defeat at Middlesbrough in late September meant we were 11th after nine games and fans expected a reaction in the next fixture which was away to Terry Bullivant’s Reading.
Going into the game it was clear Peter Reid hadn’t settled on a winning formula in the final third of the pitch and there were also concerns at the back where the ever dependable Richard Ord was playing on despite carrying an injury.
In front of 10,795 at Elm Park, Sunderland went behind on sixteen minutes after a James Lambert through ball sent Carl Asaba clear of the defence to slot home past Lionel Perez in the Sunderland goal. Asaba then made it two ten minutes later and was unlucky not to score his hattrick before the interval after Perez pulled off a couple of smart saves to deny the ex-Brentford striker.
Sunderland were fortunate to still be in the game at the interval and after some stern words from the manager at half-time, his side rallied for the opening period of the second half until this was killed off on the hour. A defensive blunder by Chris Makin resulted in Martin Williams making it three for the Royals before James Lambert got on the score sheet himself four minutes later to stretch the lead to four.
If things weren’t bad enough for the travelling fans, three minutes later Darren Williams received his second booking of the game and was given his marching orders. The only cheer of the day for the devoted few who made the trip that day was when a goal was finally scored by someone in red and white, although on this occasion it was a fan who had decided he’d had enough and join the field of play to show the players how it was done.
Apart from this jovial act, an aggressive atmosphere was prevalent among the travelling faithful that unfortunately spilled over as the Sunderland team boarded the team coach to return home. Among the calls for the managers head, players and management were spat on as arrests were made by the local Thames Valley police contingent.
After this low Peter Reid rang the changes, especially in at the back where over the next few games Jody Craddock and Darren Williams would begin to forge a fantastic partnership that was eventually joined by Darren Holloway and Michael Gray at full-back. At the other end of the pitch, everything clicked into place in mid-November when the return to fitness of Niall Quinn was combined with the arrival of Nicky Summerbee and Sunderland did not look back.
What followed was four years that was an absolute joy to watch, where the only concern was if we would win, but by how many. I couldn’t put it any better than ex-Sunderland vice chairman John Fickling when we recently caught up with him, as he simply described them as “halcyon days” - I couldn’t agree more.
Reading: Mautone, Bernal (Swales), Sandford (Wdowczyk), M. Williams, McPherson, Primus, Parkinson, Houghton, Asaba, Lambert, Meaker Substitute not used: Roach
Sunderland: Perez, Makin, Melville, Ord, Scott, Williams, Clark, Ball, Gray, Smith (Rae), Mullin (Phillips) Substitute not used: Byrne
Referee: John Branwood (Staffordshire)