A one-nil reversal at Stoke City had left Peter Reid with more than a couple of problems. Granted, it was our first league defeat since the first Saturday of September. However, we’d dropped down to seventh place, and suffered injuries to key players Paul Bracewell and David Kelly.
Kelly goes down in Sunderland’s history books as a footnote at best, however back in 1995 hopes were high that he could fire us to promotion. After all, he’d done it for Newcastle a couple of years earlier (having turned us down in the process) and had been signed for big money after a successful spell at Wolves.
However a series of niggling injuries ensured he had a stop-start to his Sunderland career, playing only nine games in 15 before being ruled out for the season with an injury suffered while away on international duty.
It was one of those niggling injuries that saw Kelly miss a November trip to the Hawthorns and, despite speculation that summer signing John Mullin, or Craig Russell may don the number nine shirt, it was Lee Howey who got the nod.
Howey, who’d been given a contract by Terry Butcher a couple of years earlier, was always a player who gave it his all. After the early years of his career had been hampered by injury, Butcher – who had been at Ipswich when Howey was in the youth set up there – signed him from Bishop Auckland. He made his debut in May 1993, aged 24, and went on to do very well for Sunderland.
Howey made six starts during the 94-95 season, scoring a couple of goals, and the fixture at The Hawthorns marked his sixth start for Reid already this season.
And he responded in style.
In the 10th minute, Howey met a corner from Steve Agnew on the full, heading it past the keeper into the back of the net.
It’s the sort of run you (we) rarely see from Sunderland strikers now – a full-blooded commitment to challenge for the ball.
The team fought valiantly to preserve the lead and, thanks to some smart stops by keeper Alec Chamberlain, and some stoic defending from Richard Ord and Andy Melville, claimed all three points.
Reid was less than happy, though. “In the first half we were all over the place defensively,” he said.
When a reporter put to him that Ord and Melville had played well, Reid replied:
Where were they before half time?
The three points lifted Sunderland back up to fourth, and the following Saturday, with Kelly fit once again, it was Howey’s strike partner Phil Gray who dropped out of the team to make way for the Republic of Ireland man.
A 1-0 win over Palace – Martin Scott slotting from the spot – took us up to second behind Millwall, while a brilliant 6-0 demolition of the leaders the following week sent us top and the Lions into a downward spiral.
Howey had to watch on from the sidelines, however, as Gray was recalled and Craig Russell – starting in place of the, yet again, injured David Kelly, hit four.
The former Bishop forward was in and out of the team throughout the rest of the season, playing up front and in defence on occasion, but made an invaluable contribution in a mid-February game at Fratton Park.
Trailing 2-1 with the full-time whistle approaching, Howey scored an equaliser which kept us fifth in the table, despite only one win in nine.
It set the wheels in motion for a surge up the table – nine straight wins followed, as we – unexpectedly, after just staying up the season before – won the championship.