On this day in 1999, Sunderland went third in the Premier League – I repeat, Sunderland went third in the Premier League – with a 3-2 win away at Watford; ex-Hornet Kevin Phillips bagging twice against his former club.
After a stunning promotion season that saw the team rack up 105 points (2.28 points per game in today’s money) and Phillips bag 23 goals despite missing 20 league games through injury, we’d taken to the top flight like the proverbial duck to water.
The summer activity had suggested that might not have been the case, however. While the additions of Steve Bould, Stefan Schwarz, Thomas Helmer, Eric Roy and Chocolate Fireguard provided international and European know-how, the excitement surrounding their arrival was off-set somewhat by a few unexpected departures.
Losing Michael Bridges seemed careless. Jettisoning Lee Clark was unfortunate but probably necessary. Banishing contract rebel Allan Johnston to New Ferens Park seemed a case of pride – and many feared it would come before a fall.
After a 4-0 Gus Poyet-inspired drubbing at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the season, we’d quickly gotten into our stride. A 2-0 win over Watford three days after the Chelsea defeat helped allay some concerns, and from there we went on a run that saw us only lose a further few two times – away at Leeds and at home to Liverpool – before this Vicarage Road fixture.
After 15 top-flight games, our record was: P15 W8 D4 L3, and we’d scored 24 goals – including two in a monsoon at Hotchpotch Park, five at Derby and four at Bradford.
The good times, they were here.
And so we headed to Vicarage Road to face a Watford side that had actually come up through the play-offs with us the season before. Under Graham Taylor – a hugely under-rated manager, for what it’s worth – they’d achieved back-to-back promotions, having been relegated from the second tier in 1996, as we were crowned champions.
During the 95-95 season, Kevin Phillips had lined up for Watford against us at Roker Park, failing to trouble the scoresheet in a 1-1 draw. In the 95-96 season he’d scored 12 in 31, while after relegation he’d only managed four goals in 18 games – certainly not stats that scream out ‘Future European Golden Boot Winner!’.
And Phillips, already with 13 goals to his name for the season – including a double against Watford – lined up, once again, alongside strike partner Niall Quinn in Reid’s adapted 4-4-2 formation (while in the Championship season Johnston had played as an out and out wide man on the left, in the Premier League Reid had preferred a holding player to play there. Typically, Schwarz played left of a central two in midfield, sitting in and allowing Gray to attack.)
We were missing Steve Bould who was serving the second game of a three-match ban for head-butting Paolo Wanchope early in a 1-1 draw at Upton Park, while Makin was also banned after a red card at the Cellnet Arena.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Craddock, Butler, Gray; Summerbee, Roy, McCann, Schwarz; Quinn, Phillips
Subs: Marriott, Ball, Thirlwell, Rae, Reddy.
Watford’s Michel Ngonge opened the scoring after four minutes, rifling home from the edge of the box. A Phillips pot-shot on 24 took a deflection and wrong footed former Sunderland keeper Alec Chamberlain, before Phillips doubled his tally and put us into the lead with a fine header from a Summerbee cross.
Phillips scored a surprising number of headers for a player of his size – his movement and anticipation were superb; his timing exquisite.
A Richard Johnson pen four minutes into the second half levelled the scores, only for Gavin McCann to net a winner with 20 left on the clock, slotting in from a narrow angle on the right corner of the six yard box.
Incidentally, this game marked the last appearance in a Sunderland shirt for Kevin Ball. He departed for Fulham a few days later, joining Paul Bracewell’s Fulham.
Bally only played 18 games for Fulham before heading back up north (ish) to join Burnley, for whom he played over 80 games.
It seems strange that Ball, a man and player linked so heavily with Peter Reid’s time in charge, actually missed out on the best of those times.
Anyway, we left Vicarage Road in third place and headed to the Stadium of Light the following Saturday to play the return fixture against Chelsea.
I may write about that one next week...