Season 1999-00, only our second-ever in the Premier League, had turned into quite an experience, perhaps even beyond the wildest dreams of some of our fans. Mind you, we’d began in rather tentative fashion, and a rather painful 0-4 baptism of fire at Chelsea on the opening day of the season, perhaps had a lot of our fans fearing the worst.
We gradually found our feet, and the season’s first derby clash against the Mags at Sid James was to be a turning point of sorts. For a memorable 2-1 win, courtesy of the “Little & Large” duo of Quinn and Phillips, in monsoon-like conditions triggered a run of fourteen league games in which defeat was suffered just once (at home v Liverpool), which propelled us up amongst the Premier League pacemakers. While winning the title itself may have appeared a bit of a long shot, the prospect of the Stadium Of Light hosting European football in season 2000/01 certainly appeared a realistic prospect.
However, things then went pear-shaped at Christmas, and a rather embarrassing 0-5 reverse at Everton on Boxing Day began a winless run which was to last until well into the New Year. Our earlier strong form acted as an insurance of sorts, for despite our poor form, we remained amongst the Premier League’s front-runners, and the re-match with Newcastle in early February was still very much anticipated.
Prior to the game we stood in fifth spot, while Bobby Robson’s side lay sixth from bottom, so in spite of our form dip we still appeared, on paper at least, favourites going into the latest renewal of hostilities. It seemed very much an appropriate opportunity to return to winning ways, while a win would also of course give us the double over our Tyneside foes, what would be our first since season 1966/67.
It was also of course Newcastle’s first-ever visit to The Stadium Of Light, and such the game attracted a new record home crowd, 42,192, none of whom would surely have complained at the fare which was subsequently served up. Though as it turned out, the game looked like going the way of our dear rivals at one stage, but just when some of us maybe feared the worst, a certain striker was to come up trumps - and a more fitting occasion he could not have chosen, what to prove his worth to us once again.
So on a grey, overcast afternoon we kicked-off attacking the South Stand, and perhaps predictably the early play was rather scrappy as both sides felt each other out, with both seeking to gain the upper hand.
We provided the first real threat when Kevin Kilbane, after having beaten Warren Barton out on the left, then put over a cross which took a wicked deflection off Rodriques Helder - but fortunately for the Newcastle defender, the ball looped straight into the hands of keeper Steve Harper.
Then it was Newcastle’s turn to go on the offensive, and a cross from Robert Lee picked out Gary Speed, but the latter shot wide. The Mags talisman Alan Shearer then found Keiron Dyer with a neat pass, and the former Ipswich man cut inside before going for goal, only to see his effort deflected behind for a corner. And from the flag-kick, giant Scottish striker Duncan Ferguson powered in a header, which was superbly tipped over the bar by Thomas Sorensen.
But Newcastle maintained the pressure, and were rewarded after eleven minutes when they deservedly drew first blood. Keiron Dyer fed Duncan Ferguson, who in turn brought in Didier Domi, whose shot took a wicked deflection to leave Thomas Sorensen completely wrong-footed.
We responded immediately to this setback, and when Niall Quinn was fouled outside the Newcastle area, Gavin McCann blasted the free-kick only inches wide. But the Mags continued to hold the upper hand, and it took a desperate challenge by Paul Butler on Alan Shearer, to prevent a dangerous move developing.
Newcastle’s rather neat passing game in fact, was causing us quite a few problems, and it very nearly led to our visitors going 2-0 up after nineteen minutes. Gary Speed fed Keiron Dyer with a superb ball, and the midfielder raced into the box, only to see his effort superbly saved by Thomas Sorensen. However, the rebound fell to Duncan Ferguson, who looked a certain scorer, but thankfully for us, he lost his footing at the vital moment, and the danger evaporated.
But the Mags weren’t to be denied, and the second goal they’d been threatening duly arrived, with just twenty-one minutes gone on the clock, though it was in all fairness due to poor defending on our part. For following a free-kick for a Chris Makin foul on Keiron Dyer, Dyer’s ball into the box picked out Rodriques Helder, who was virtually unmarked, and his powerful header left Thomas Sorensen helpless as the Mag contingent again erupted with delight, no doubt sensing revenge for their side’s defeat at Sid James back in August.
0-2 down so early on then at home to our nearest rivals, and some of us no doubt feared worst, that The Mags would avenge their early-season defeat at our hands.
However, when you had “Super” Kevin Phillips in your side there surely had to be hope, and just sixty seconds after falling further in arrears, we reduced the deficit through our marksman-in-chief. Chris Makin lofted a long ball into the Newcastle area, which Niall Quinn touched onto his partner-in-goals. SKP had a fair bit to do, but he controlled the ball well, before beating Steve Harper with a powerful effort. Game on.
Boosted by this welcome strike, we continued to attack, and had claims for a penalty turned down, after Niall Quinn appeared to have been fouled by Nicos Dabizas inside the box. But Newcastle continued to call the tune, and very nearly went 3-1 up. Keiron Dyer was again at the centre of a swift attacking move, which resulted in a corner. Dyer himself took the kick and picked out Duncan Ferguson, whose powerful header was cleared off the line by Jody Craddock. Another let-off.
But we proved that we were by no means of out of it, and ended the first period in the ascendancy. For following the award of a free-kick, Niall Quinn set up Kevin Kilbane, whose lobbed effort was acrobatically tipped over by Steve Harper. The Mags keeper then excelled himself again just before the break, when he turned over a superb curling effort from Chris Makin, which appeared destined for the top corner of the net.
1-2 then at the break. Could we pull it back in the second-half?
Well, Peter Reid’s half-time talk certainly appeared to do the trick, for we began the second forty-five positively, and both Michael Gray and Kevin Kilbane caused the Newcastle rearguard one or two moments of anxiety, before a centre from Gavin McCann just failed to find Kevin Phillips.
After Duncan Ferguson had provided us with an anxious moment at the back, we almost drew level. Gavin McCann found Nicky Summerbee with a superb crossfield pass, who in turn brought in Chris Makin. Makin cut inside before unleashing a powerful, low shot which seemed destined for the back of the Mags net, until Steve Harper pulled off a superb stop.
However, Newcastle were far from finished and they proceeded to cause us one or two more anxious moments, with the tricky Keiron Dyer at the centre of most of their moves.
In contrast, we just couldn’t find the necessary penetration as we bid for an equalizer. It seemed then that the Mags would indeed exact retribution, but Peter Reid’s rather inspired substitution of Michael Reddy for Nicky Summerbee seemed to pay dividends, as we suddenly upped our game, with the game now in its final quarter.
After Kevin Kilbane had forced another great save from Steve Harper, the Stadium Of Light erupted as it surely hadn’t erupted before. Kilbane appeared to have dwelled on the ball too long on the right of the Mags area, but he suddenly sent over a left-footed cross which travelled over a crowd of players to pick out the unmarked Kevin Phillips. And SKP, in spite of rather vain offside appeals on the part of several Newcastle players, gleefully slotted home his twenty-second goal of the season to level matters up, and at the same time spark delirium amongst the home fans.
Newcastle fans and players alike were no doubt gutted, having been pegged back after appearing to have been coasting at one stage.
It was very much now advantage Sunderland, and we continued to attack in search of a winner, though in spite of creating one or two further chances, the game ended at 2-2.
Maybe a draw was a fair result overall, after what had in effect been the proverbial game of two halves, as well as an absorbing, action-packed encounter in true derby style.
While it was disappointing not to have returned to winning ways and to have completed the double over our fierce local rivals, four out of six points was not a bad return at all.
Our comeback from 0-2 down once again illustrated rather graphically, the battling, never-say-die qualities Peter Reid had instilled into his side.
However, it would be a further two months before we finally ended our win drought when we gained revenge over Everton by 2-1 at home, and our subsequent form improved enough over the remainder of the season to see us end in seventh place in the Premier League, our best finish for many a season.
The Mags, meanwhile, had to content themselves with eleventh place finish, proof perhaps that the balance of power in the North east was finally shifting in our favour.