Following the heartbreak of defeat via a penalty shoot-out in the 1998 Division One play-off final v Charlton at Wembley, doubtless there were those were in two minds as to how we’d respond in season 1998-99. Fortunately no-one need have worried as we proceeded to steamroller all before us, when we played at times some truly scintillating stuff, scoring goals for fun, and handing out one or two good thrashings into the bargain en route to the First Division Championship. It was indeed something of a magic carpet ride.
While our awesome league form in 1998-99 made promotion and securing the Division One Championship something of a formality, neither of these issues were finally resolved until the tail end of the season.
We clinched a return to the big time courtesy of a 5-2 win against Bury in a re-arranged game at Gigg Lane shortly after Easter, but had to wait a few further days before putting the cherry on the cake against Barnsley at Oakwell in our penultimate away fixture of the season. The Tykes had ended our proud unbeaten start to the season with a rather surprise 3-2 win at The Stadium Of Light back in November, but as it turned out, revenge for what would eventually turn out to be a minor blemish would certainly be sweet.
Backed by another sizeable following in a crowd of around 17,000, we began the game brightly and almost grabbed a fourth-minute lead. A neat pass from Allan Johnston picked out Kevin Phillips, who bore down on goal before sending in a low, diagonal shot which beat Barnsley keeper Tony Bullock, but unfortunately travelled just inches wide of the far post.
But Barnsley, mainly due to fine work by Mike Sheron and Craig Hignett in midfield, showed that they were prepared to make a contest of things, though they seemed to lack a cutting edge up front. And we appeared to be the most likely side to break the deadlock, something which was emphasised in the fourteenth minute following a neat move. Allan Johnston and Kevin Phillips were again at the heart of things, when they combined neatly to set up a chance for Lee Clark, whose close-range effort was well saved by Bullock.
In fact, it wasn’t until the half-hour mark that Barnsley produced their first effort on goal, though it needed an element of good fortune. An attempted clearance from Nicky Summerbee cannoned off Kevin Ball and landed somewhat conveniently at the feet of Mike Sheron, who played the ball onto Craig Hignett. Hignett in turn played it forward for Bruce Dyer to run on to, but Dyer thankfully failed to make clean contact, and Thomas Sorensen was able to save comfortably.
But the last fifteen minutes or so of the first-half belonged to us, and we made our dominance pay off right on the stroke of half-time. A long ball out of defence by Michael Gray was flicked on by Niall Quinn to Nicky Summerbee, who’d ran into space, and the winger then took a couple of strides forward before unleashing a fierce shot which left Tony Bullock helpless, to give us a vital breakthrough.
We continued on the offensive in the second-half, and after Kevin Ball and Kevin Phillips had both missed chances to increase our lead we gave ourselves a bit more breathing space just after the hour mark, courtesy of a fine individual effort from Lee Clark.
The Tynesider collected the ball on the half-way line and advanced towards the Barnsley area, and with Kevin Phillips acting as a decoy, Clark then beat Tony Bullock with a diagonal shot to make it 2-0 - much to the delight of the Sunderland masses behind the goal. The Championship party could just about begin.
Barnsley were clearly rattled by this latest setback, and they promptly stepped up gear in a bid to retrieve the game. The home side were rewarded five minutes from time, even though it was their first real effort on goal, and did in effect come out of the blue. A right-wing corner, won and taken by Craig Hignett, picked out Mike Sheron, who beat the unsighted Thomas Sorensen to hand his side a lifeline.
Game on then so it seemed 0 and boosted by this goal, Barnsley continued to press forward in search of an equalizer. Thomas Sorensen was forced into action to preserve our lead with one or two fine saves, one in particular from Hignett. But then right on the time, the Championship celebrations could finally begin and the champagne could now be taken off ice, when we made the game safe with a killer third goal.
Kevin Phillips had scored a stupendous curling effort as part of his foursome at Bury three days earlier, but he now surpassed himself with what was surely our goal of the season for 1998-99. Picking up a loose ball just inside the Barnsley half, Super Kev shrugged off a challenge, and spotting that keeper Tony Bullock was slightly out of position, curled a truly stunning effort beyond the keeper into the net to spark of off more delerium amongst the travelling hoardes.
The referee’s whistle for full-time not surprisingly signalled mass celebrations not only at Oakwell, but doubtless all over Wearside. We’d avenged our 2-3 home defeat at Barnsley’s hands earlier in the season in the best possible way, with a 3-1 win to thus secure the Division One Championship with three games to spare, and now required just one more win to top the one-hundred points mark for the season. It had indeed been a great night in South Yorkshire, when revenge had been ‘just Champion’.