It occurred to me only recently that there’s a whole generation of Sunderland supporters who’ve not witnessed a promotion campaign. It was the spectacular Roy Keane led charge in 2007 that was our last, meaning any supporters under the age of 20 or 21 probably don’t remember much about a promotion-winning season.
Of course, for the majority of those intervening years there’s been Premier League football on offer, but it’s a completely different Sunderland supporting upbringing to the one people of my generation had.
Denis Smith’s ‘87-88 Championship win in Division Three was quickly followed by promotion to the top flight two seasons later. Peter Reid’s magnificent first full season at Roker Park brought promotion to the Premier League in ‘95-96, while the ‘98-99 Championship win will probably go down as one of the most enjoyable seasons to attend in our more recent history.
There were near misses along the way too – the 1998 Play Off final defeat to Charlton, and in 2004 we fell at the first Play Off hurdle, cheated out of the semi – inept refereeing costing us on that occasion.
Over the course of those 16 or 17 years, we’d witnessed four promotions (including three championship wins) and a couple of near misses.
Yo-yo football? Absolutely. But, I’d take that any day of the week ahead of battling for Premier League survival – let alone battling to get out of League One.
Anyway, I digress.
During a promotion season there are tipping points. Games that you walk away from thinking ‘We could do it this season.’ You get the feeling. You can see it in the manager’s eyes. The players believe. In Reidy’s 95-96 championship season, for me that game was a 6-0 November home win against Mick McCarthy’s Millwall.
In Mick McCarthy’s championship winning campaign that game was 16 years ago today – away at Leicester City.
Promotion challenge: mounted
Going into the game we were sitting third in the table, having won eight and drawn two of our last twelve games - a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United and a 2-0 reverse at Millwall, who of course had beaten us in the FA Cup Semi Final a few months earlier, the only negatives.
The Millwall defeat though had jolted the building confidence somewhat. It was a big test and we’d failed it – with, it must be acknowledged, a few injuries to contend with.
Leicester had been in the top flight the season before, relegated on a respectable 33 points. However, they hadn’t started the season too well, which had cost manager Micky Adams his job. A horrendous sounding partnership of Dave Bassett and Howard Wilkinson briefly took charge – four games, four draws – before Craig Levein was appointed early in November.
Levein had started with a couple of draws and a 3-0 win over Coventry, and on paper – recently relegated side, new manager bounce – this was a significant test.
Sunderland lined up:
Myhre, Lynch, Breen, Caldwell, Arca; Whitehead, Robinson, Whitley, Carter; Elliott, Stewart. Subs: Alnwick, Collins, Lawrence, Bridges, Brown.
Leicester’s team, in hindsight, seems like a bad Football Manager save. Former Sheffield Wednesday keeper Kevin Pressman started in goal, while ex-mags Nikos Dabizas and Keith Gillespie, Australian wind up merchant Danny Tiatto and future Sunderland striker David Connolly all started.
For some reason, no keeper was named on the bench, but Chris Makin, Martin Keown, Scot Gemmill and Dion Dublin all were.
Leicester were on top for the majority of the first half, Connolly firing a good chance wide, and Scowcroft’s effort being blocked – it was pretty much one-way traffic and we could count ourselves a little fortunate to go in level.
The introduction of Chris Brown – replacing Stewart on the hour – changed the game. And it’s not often we were able to say that.
His volley only minutes after coming on was tipped over by Pressman, who failed to deal with the resulting corner from Whitehead, allowing Caldwell to head the ball home.
Cue mass celebrations in the away end. By the time the players were making their way back to the centre circle, I was three or four rows in front of where I’d been when Whitehead knocked the corner in.
From there, it was quite an open game – we had chances to seal the win, Elliott should have scored, Brown – striking a lovely curler which hit the bar – almost did.
At the other end the excellent Myhre – a superb goalkeeper who’s often left out of ‘best SAFC keeper’ conversations repelled a few attacks, but the defence stood firm. 1-0, and a significant step, mentally – more than anything else – towards promotion.
I thought that, with Leicester trying to squeeze the pitch, his strength and pace could take him in behind them.
I thought we deserved it for the way we played after a slow start, but in the second half we were the better side. We usually aren’t very good at corners and free-kicks, so it was nice to score from one.
It wasn’t a rehearsed move, Steve Caldwell just did well to get in front of the keeper and attack the ball.
The job McCarthy did at Sunderland is vastly under-rated, due primarily to the way the following season played out. The team he managed to promotion – the word managed is used very deliberately here – had none of the flair of Reid’s promotion team. But the organisation, motivation and sheer bloody mindedness to grind out results was superb, and a testament to all involved.
As for sniffing a promotion campaign for us this season – well, on the evidence so far, it feels more like a Play Off season than anything else.
However, a win on a cold November evening at Fleetwood next week may just have my promotion senses tingling.