When you look back at most promotion campaigns, you can pinpoint a game that gave you the belief that we could be on to something good here. In 1995-96, it was the game against top-of-the-table Millwall 25 years ago today.
Peter Reid’s men had found their stride. After a somewhat indifferent start to the season we’d clicked, and 13 points from the previous six games had lifted us to second in the table by the time the league leaders – who Sunderland had already beaten earlier in the season at the New Den – rolled into town.
Millwall had been the early pacesetters, and were highly fancied for promotion. Under Mick McCarthy, they’d built an attractive, talented and tough team – with the likes of Kasey Keller, Ben Thatcher, Alex Rae and Uwe Fuchs all regulars – although came into the game having suffered three consecutive defeats.
Before the game, Peter Reid said:
Ever since I have been here I have always felt there has been a real atmosphere about this ground and about the fans.
The players are upbeat and so am I – and I think they will go out there and do themselves justice. We are going to try to get at Millwall and attempt to be positive.
They have got a better away record than at home, and we’re expecting a hard game.
It won’t be easy, but we’re looking forward to it. We’ll be having a go, and I can’t wait for kick off.
Sunderland, had been transformed under Reid – although injuries to his two big signings, Paul Bracewell and David Kelly, meant the team that lined up against the Lions on this cold December afternoon at Roker Park was made up entirely of players who’d almost been relegated the season before.
The terrier-like Martin Gray replaced Bracewell in midfield, while 21-year-old striker Craig Russell, who’d been around the first team squad since the age of 17, partnered Phil Gray up front. Skipper Kevin Ball was also out through suspension, meaning Richard Ord captained the side.
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott, Gray (Mi), Agnew, Gray (Ma), Smith, Gray (P), Russell. Subs: Howey, Mullin, Armstrong.
It was Sunderland who took an early lead – thanks to former Sunderland defender Anton Rogan’s foul on the transfer-listed Phil Gray, who was in the process of turning to shoot. Referee Eddie Lomas awarded the penalty, which Martin Scott duly dispatched to give the home side a 16th-minute lead.
Millwall almost levelled through Fuchs – Ord clearing the German’s header from under the crossbar – before Russell got the first of his four goals for the afternoon.
On 33, he latched onto a lovely pass from Martin Smith outpaced the defenders and slotted home a low drive.
Two-nil at half time, and you’d imaging Mick McCarthy still fancied his side’s chances, however they were firmly put to bed within six minutes of the restart – Phil Gray heading home from Scott’s deep cross.
Millwall were on the ropes and it was Russell who landed a knockout blow just moments later, a diving header from Martin Smith’s cross putting Sunderland four up. He completed his hattrick with another header – this time from a Phil Gray cross – and added his fourth and Sunderland’s sixth with pretty much the last kick of the game, wriggling past Thatcher and slotting home.
It was a win that had Steve Cram declaring we were going up and Peter Reid was delighted.
The players were superb. Some of the football was a joy. An early goal relaxed us and when we relaxed we showed what we could do.
We are in an exciting position. You don’t get in this position unless you deserve to be there, and we’ve set ourselves high standards. Now we have to keep them.
Sunderland, of course, did stay there. The transformation Reid oversaw that season was incredible, and underlines the impact a good manager can have on players. You could say the same about Millwall, however, who from their lofty position on the morning of Saturday 9 December 1995 fell like the proverbial stone, particularly after Mick McCarthy’s accession to the position of Ireland manager – and were relegated.
The last couple of seasons at Roker Park saw some great games, and this was certainly one of them.
If you’re in need of a goal-fest on this cold Wednesday, sit back and watch the full game here!