It was an epic season in so many ways, but it’s easy to forget that Peter Reid’s title winners during the 1995-96 season didn’t entirely have it all their own way on route to winning Endsleigh League Division One.
Undoubtedly it was different circumstances with very different expectations to the current season we find ourselves in, but it was a slow burner where in his first full season in charge Reid would only win two of the first seven league games. The performances however indicated Sunderland could hold their own which was a revelation after struggling for the past four seasons to even achieve mid-table mediocrity in the division.
After the initial period where the players settled under the new manager the team began to hit their stride - results were ground out and mostly won by the only goal or the odd goal in three.
This pattern was only broken briefly with an unforgettable 6-0 demolition of Millwall in December, who shared top spot with Sunderland going into the game. This was a clear anomaly in the first half of the season where games were tight and Sunderland’s would often win the day with workman like performances rather than blowing teams away as Reid’s sides would do when we returned from the Premier League in future years.
Following that epic victory over Mick McCarthy’s Millwall (who would end the season relegated after McCarthy resigned to become the Republic of Ireland manager a month later), Sunderland would embark on a run that would see one victory in nine league games over the festive period.
This would result in Sunderland lying in 3rd position in Division One where they were 5 points adrift of Charlton Athletic in 2nd and 10 points behind league leaders Derby County leading up to the visit of Ipswich Town on the 20th February.
Given a choice of that situation with our current League table it would be a no-brainer that we’re in a better position lying 3 points from an automatic promotion position and potentially six points from the league leaders (if Coventry win their game in hand).
What Reid’s side did however, beginning with the visit of Ipswich Town on the 20th February 1996, was to rattle off nine straight victories and only suffered one league defeat in the 17 remaining league fixtures which would come at Tranmere Rovers on the final day of the season (during a party atmosphere a week after Sunderland had lifted the league trophy at Roker Park).
This run, as well as the foundation of winning the league itself, was based on a solid defensive unit rather than free flowing attacking football. To illustrate this, Reid’s side conceded only ten goals at home all season (only one other team conceded less than twenty at home that season) and scored less than half the division at home with 32 with Craig Russell ending as top scorer with 13 (having scored 4 in the 6-0 victory over Millwall).
Coming from the position we found ourselves on Boxing Day we have needed a run of winning 8 in the last 11 to get back into a position where anything is possible.
As with 1995-96 the majority of these points have been won by work rate and the organisation of our defensive unit. A signal of this is the fact over half the division have scored more goals this season but as with almost a quarter of a century ago, we have the best defensive record.
Expectation aside, our performances this season have the smell and look of Reid’s title winners of 1996 and a similar run of form from our corresponding fixture in February to the one back then… would go down very nicely.