The Play-Off defeat to Charlton hurt. And hurt deeply.
After a disappointing start to the campaign, the 97-98 season had gained increasing momentum; Reidy was at his bullish best, we had a group of players who’d ‘clicked’ and whom we genuinely enjoyed watching.
The Phillips and Quinn partnership was firing, Johnston and Summerbee providing consistent quality from the flanks, backed up beautifully by the force of Kevin Ball and the deft class of Lee Clark. It seemed as if we were destined to win that Play-Off, and the fact we didn’t felt like we’d missed our chance completely.
Defensively, of course, we had left something to be desired – as conceding four on that day at Wembley illustrated only too well – and Reid had sought defensive reinforcements: Sorensen arrived to replace Lionel the Flapper, and Paul Butler – he of the savoury pastries – added some good old fashioned, no-nonsense defensive stability.
Niall Quinn’s post-Wembley speech has, of course, gone down in Wearside folklore, and in hindsight it seems prophetic. However, heading into the 98-99 season there was hope – isn’t there always? – but little certainty.
How would we respond to that devastating Wembley blow?
Incredibly well, as it turned out.
Nine wins and seven draws in the first 16 League games had us sitting comfortably top. And while the defensive side of the team had improved significantly, conceding only 12, the attacking side wasn’t faring too badly either: 40 goals in those first 16 league games included a 5-0 win over Tranmere, a 7-0 demolition of Oxford and a couple of four goal hauls, too.
All the more impressive given Kevin Phillips had been out injured since mid-September, a broken foot sustained in a League Cup win at home to Chester ruling him out for four months – an injury which followed Lee Clark’s broken leg on the opening day of the season.
Kev’s injury had given Michael Bridges and Danny Dichio the chance to impress, and they’d certainly done so. (Although I will always bear a grudge when it comes to Dichio, who grabbed the ball to take a penalty when we were comfortably ahead at home to Oxford on his first League start of the season, despite refusing to take one at Wembley.)
That win at home to Chester, in which Phillips got his injury, was one five wins in the League Cup, and an extra time victory over Grimsby had seen us drawn away at Everton.
A return to his former club for Reid aside, this was a significant game in terms of assessing just how ready we were to take that next step up. It was our first game against Premier League opposition since relegation in 96-97, a season in which we fought valiantly but didn’t have the requisite quality when it mattered.
This squad felt different, however. Mentally strong, superbly talented and packed with potential – and with impressive depth, demonstrated by the results gained when missing Phillips and Clark, arguably our two best players.
In front of over 28,000 at Goodison, Sunderland lined up:
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Butler, Melville, Scott; Smith, Williams, Thirlwell, Johnston; Quinn, Bridges. Subs: Marriott, Craddock, Clark, Wainwright, Proctor.
Everton featured three future Sunderland players in their team:
Myhre, Short, Materazzi, Dunne, Ball; Cadamateri, Hutchison, Dacourt, Collins; Ferguson, Bakayoko, Subs: Gerrard, Bilic, Cleland, Grant, Oster.
Sunderland dominated the first hour of the game on this cold November evening, looking every bit a Premier League side in waiting. Skilful, creative and inventive, the team took the game to the Toffees and were rewarded at the half hour mark.
A long clearance from Sorensen put Bridges in behind Materazzi, and the young striker finished with aplomb. It was a route one goal, but the football before that had been anything but.
A tactical switch by Walter Smith on 66 minutes paid dividends – although the departure of Don Hutchison in favour of Oster, described by the Liverpool Echo as ‘the youngster the fans love to hate’, was met with derision.
The width provided by the former Grimsby winger, changed the dynamic of the game and brought Everton more joy, culminating in an equaliser: Collins bending a free kick past Sorensen.
From there it was all Everton as the game past the full-time whistle and entered 30 additional minutes; Sorensen looking unconvincing on occasion as Ball, Oster, Bakayoko and Ferguson all had chances.
For Sunderland, Lee Clark came off the bench to get his first actions since the opening day, while on the hour mark Bridges was replaced by Proctor, making his debut.
The game ended with the scores even, and we faced our first penalty shootout since that fateful day at Wembley.
Both sides scored their first three – Scott, Johnston and Smith for Sunderland, Ball, Collins and Materazzi for Everton. Makin, who’d scored at Wembley, hit the crossbar, but the scores remained level after Oster – who’d earned a temporary reprieve from the Goodison Park ire – put his penalty ‘hopelessly wide’.
The returning Clark and Everton’s Tony Grant netted to tie the scores after four penalties each. Quinn netted the first sudden death kick, leaving Everton’s big money signing Bakayoko needing to score. Sorensen saved easily, causing scenes of jubilation among the large travelling contingent.
The celebration wasn’t just because of the result – although that was important, a quarter final at home to Luton Town awaited, and the Worthington Cup, as it was then, was still a valued competition – illustrated by Phillips’ selection against Chester earlier in the campaign.
No, this result meant more. It was redemption. It was cathartic to win the penalty shoot out after Wembley; sitting at the top of the League, unbeaten, and winning in this manner exorcised some ghosts.
But more than that, it proved that the team we had was good enough to compete; we had continued to improve, and we were ‘the real deal’.
This was an acid test for us – and we came through it in the best possible way.