It seems strange that a regular league game could be considered the pinnacle of the past 47 years. After all, there wasn’t anything at stake bar three points. No championship. No relegation. No European places. Just three, run-of-the-mill points.
Well, three run-of-the-mill points on paper, maybe.
But this victory meant so, so much more. It announced Sunderland as a Premier League team to be reckoned with and, for a short period of time at least, enabled us to believe. Enabled us to dream. Enabled us to imagine ‘maybe’. Enabled us to see what was possible.
When you think back to the best days – or nights – at the Stadium of Light, the play-off game against Sheffield United often comes out on top. The white hot atmosphere that night has never been surpassed. The Allardyce Chelsea and Everton fixtures, too, would rank highly. Keane’s Spurs game. And Richardson’s free kick game against the barcodes.
That winter afternoon against Chelsea was special in a different way; a feeling of wonder, of awe, of pride bursting from the SOL’s seams. We’d arrived.
It made it all the more special because, just five years earlier, we looked down and out.
Scrapping around towards the bottom of the second tier in a ground that had suffered from serial underinvestment, in front of a disheartened – and shrinking – crowd, we watched on with envy as some of the country’s bigger clubs, and Newcastle and Middlesbrough, spent big and attracted global stars.
No club personified the ‘new era’ of English football more so than Chelsea. From Gullit to Vialli, Zola to Desailly, and many, many more besides, the overseas signings came in like a flood – indeed, three weeks after this game came the infamous Southampton v Chelsea match when Chelsea became the first club in English football to name a starting line up in which all the players were born overseas.
Sunderland, under the superb management of Peter Reid, had taken a different tact. Bar goalkeeper Sorensen, the team that had stormed to the championship the season before was primarily made up of UK and Irish players. Sunderland v Chelsea was a clash of culture, a clash of style, a clash of philosophy – and boy, what a clash it was.
Sunderland came into the game as the fourth best team in the country – a tremendous start to the season (even accounting for the opening day annihilation at Stamford Bridge) had seen us collect 31 points from the first 16 games.
Chelsea, five points behind, sat in eighth.
Sunderland had a few selection headaches. Bould and Butler were out, so Craddock and Williams were named in defence. The midweek departure of Kevin Ball to Fulham, meanwhile, had taken away a midfield option, while injuries had taken a few more, so Reid named Eric Roy and Paul Thirlwell in the centre of midfield.
In Chelsea’s side were future Sunderland flop Flo (try saying that quickly after a beer), and future manager Poyet.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Williams, Craddock, Gray, Summerbee, Roy, Thirlwell, Schwarz, Quinn, Phillips. Subs: Marriott, Holloway, Oster, Butler, Reddy.
Chelsea: De Goey, Lambourde, Hogh, Desailly, Babayaro, Wise, Morris, Poyet, Harley, Zola, Flo. Subs: Cudicini, Petrescu, Terry, Goldbaek, Wolleaston.
The atmosphere on the cold December afternoon built up to a crescendo before kick off. You get those games, don’t you? You can sense it. You can feel it in the air. There’s a buzz. Everyone’s together, and you just know something special’s about to happen. Or is that the heady mix of nostalgic hindsight talking? I don’t know, maybe it’s a combination.
But something special was about to happen – and happen quickly it did.
In the very first minute, Roy danced into the box – the Frenchman was a lovely player, with a delightful touch – and managed to put in a left footed cross shot which fell to the feet of Quinn, who stabbed home from close range. The nervous energy, the buzz of anticipation burst into a jubilant roar.
Twenty minutes or so later, Kevin Phillips scored what is probably one of his best ever goals – a dipping, swerving half volley from 30 yards out that flew past De Goey before he had the chance to even anticipate it coming his way. To a roar to rival the famous Roker Roar, Sunderland went into a 2-0 lead.
That opportunism, the confidence to take that shot on typified that Sunderland team. They were fearless.
Ten minutes before half time Phillips doubled his tally – Gray’s cross from the left was chested down by Quinn who attempted to lob the keeper. De Goey could only palm the ball down to Phillips, who rifled home from three yards out.
Phillips almost got his hat-trick moments later when his rasping drive from outside the box was tipped over – but from the subsequent corner Quinn made it four with a stunning left foot volley.
It was a half you never wanted to end. Chelsea shut up shop in the second half, Poyet stabbing home from close range to get a late consolation.
But it was Sunderland’s day and, in my 35 years of watching the lads, I can’t remember many better.