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Way Back When: Sunderland in the 1997/98 season - a rollercoaster of emotions

In May of 1997, Sunderland had just been relegated from the Premier League - Tony Blair led New Labour to a landslide win in the election and the bulldozers had moved in to demolish the beloved Roker Park.

A general view of the Stadium of Light

May 1997 and Sunderland had just been relegated from the Premier League - Tony Blair led New Labour to a landslide win in the election and the bulldozers had moved in to demolish the beloved Roker Park breaking many folks’ hearts. The times were a changing.

The year ended in an odd number so there was no international summer of football to keep us occupied. There was, however, a new stadium to look forward to and Peter Reid was making some big changes to the squad.

Reid added the youth of Craddock and Byrne from the lower leagues, Chris Makin from Marseille, very surprisingly Lee Clark from Newcastle and a certain Kevin Phillips from Watford.

I distinctly remember returning from holiday that summer and discovering that Boro had signed Paul Merson and we had signed a striker from Watford - a striker called Phillips and not called Connolly. I was devastated. Same old Sunderland.

A pre-season drive up to Carlisle to witness a goalless draw for a birthday treat didn’t alter my pessimistic view, either.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Manchester City v Sunderland Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

However, the opening of The Stadium of Light on 30 July 1997 = a chaotic night as the new ticketing system left spectators wandering around looking for an empty seat - or was it just that the awe which our new home instilled in a long suffering fanbase merely disorientated everyone?

The scale of the place, the sharpness, the freshness, the noise. The country was entering a new political era and our club mirrored that - not even Status Quo and a goalless draw against Ajax could spoil that night. Roker Park was loved but this place was something else.

The season proper started with an away game at Sheffield United - always a tough place to go. Phillips was out injured, so Reid went with what felt like the old guard of Ord, Melville, Scott and Agnew. Only Clark and Makin made their debuts - a one paced team lost 2 - 0. Same old Sunderland.

Then the following Friday night the proper opening of the SoL - aptly against Man City - a club with traditional strong links and ties to Sunderland.

Niall Quinn

Over 38,000 provided a great armosphere and witnessed Quinn score first before Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark bagged goals on their home debuts with Kinkladze briefly drawing City level.

The attendance that night was our highest since the old Roker End was chopped in half - it was a huge turn out and showed what was possible.

Hopes were high as we exited the SoL that night, but two defeats in a row away to Port Vale and at home to Norwich on the weekend that Princess Diana died brought the world crashing down.

Three wins and a draw restored some hope before we took on Boro at home. Boro had Emerson, Merson and Townsend in their line up along with a group of solid experienced players. They were a good side and we were lucky to get away with a 2 - 1 defeat. We were outclassed and in 11th place.

York City v Middlesbrough Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

The next match - away to Reading was the prelude to change, though.

Without Phillips, Quinn and Johnston we were trounced 4 - 0. Reid was under huge pressure and was lucky to keep his job. Did the board know something that we didnt? Did Reid have a secret master plan that he hadn't yet revealed? Not many were fighting his corner that October night in Berkshire.

However, after that there was change. The introduction of Craddock saw the end of the Ord and Melville axis - a partnership which had been so reliable for so long, and the return to fitness of Kevin Phillips saw us grab a win against Huddersfield.

The transformations of Darren Williams into a central defender and Micky Gray into a left back - the introduction of Allan Johnston to the left wing and the return to fitness of Quinn brought balance, pace, energy and flair to what had always been a predictable and one-paced team.

The final piece of the jigsaw arose from the swap deal which brought Nicky Summerbee to Sunderland and sent the disappointingly unwanted Craig Russell to City.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Manchester City v Sunderland Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Had Reid completed the plan or was it just fortune? We will never know, but it started the most brilliant of times and a 4 - 1 win at Portsmouth got things going.

Phillips and Quinn were now a pair, scoring every week. Not only did we expect to win every week we expected goals and plenty of them.

A three-nil win at Crewe before Christmas saw us back in the top six, and witnessing such a dominant and complete performance that day convinced me that we were going up. What did I know?

A capacity crowd on Boxing Day saw probably the first of THE great atmospheres at the SoL. It was a 2-0 win against Bradford but how it wast 6, 7 or 8 I will never know - the performance and the day in general was a real statement. Fourth place on New Year’s Day.

This was a team of partnerships: Holloway and Summerbee, Williams and Craddock, Gray and Johnston, Clark and Ball, Quinn and Phillips. A team of balance and harmony. The football was brilliant. All out attack. Joyous.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Sunderland v Ipswich Town Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

We put 5 past Rotherham and 4 past Sheffield United, Phillips was now Super Kev, Quinn and his Disco Pants were now unplayable; so soon after being written off and him considering retirement, Sir Niall Quinn was reborn in this thrilling season.

Quinn’s goal against Port Vale in late January still ranks as one of the best ever scored at the SoL. That goal saw us move up to third - Reading away felt like a distant and bad memory.

The Lads suffered two defeats in February but we were still third when we went to The City Ground to play Nottingham Forest who were sitting in first place.

They were a good team but we battered them with Rae, Johnston and, inevitably, Phillips scoring. The football we played that night, the style and the swagger made that drive back North a total pleasure.

A 4-1 win against Stockport saw us move into the top two for the first time that season. We were unstoppable, win after win followed until a Good Friday night match with QPR.

Jody Craddock of Sunderland and Autti Heinola of Queens Park Rangers

Two Niall Quinn goals saw us two up with fifteen to play, but Mike Sheron scored twice - two points dropped. Defensive frailty perhaps? Could our policy of all out attack be costing us? Time would tell.

Easter Monday and West Brom away. Lee Hughes and Kevin Kilbane put WBA two up to reinforce those fears of defensive frailty. That was before Quinn and Phillips brought us level and Mickey Gray got sent off.

Still Quinn majestically put us into an unlikely lead before Hughes equalised - another 2 points dropped. It was a great game and it was great fun but the tension in the pit of the stomach was excruciating.

Our rivals were winning as many as us and that was the problem. Boro and Forest were excellent sides. Boro with Merson, Forest with Van Hooijdonk, us with Phillips - this was not an ordinary second tier. It was probably the best ever in terms of quality.

Sunderland QPR Phillips penalty Photo by Tom Buist - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

A defeat at Ipswich ultimately cost us automatic promotion. The thrilling chase was just too much, maybe it started a game or two too late. We got 90 points and scored 86 goals, but finished third.

So the play offs and the first leg was away to Sheffield United. A tired performance saw us go down 2-1 despite Ball putting us ahead. It didn’t feel right that day at Bramhall Lane, and the worry was that the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion would kill us.

Well... that was until the home leg.

A night game with probably what is still the best atmosphere that the SoL has generated. The team were re-energised and we won a thriller 2-0. Johnston and Dichio scoring, Perez the unlikely hero with a great double save at the death.

The final at Wembley was my fourth visit and I had yet to see us score never mind win. That weekend, I saw us net four goals, and had a mad weekend in the baking heat... but still no win and no quick return to the Premier League.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Final - Charlton Athletic v Sunderland Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

We all know how the match ended. I have never left a football stadium so completely exhausted - both physically and emotionally - as I did that day. The thrill of the chase and the cruel lottery of a penalty shoot out.

Defeat at Wembley. The Sunderland way.

This, however, was a season of rebirth. Despite Boro and Newcastle being in higher leagues, we felt that we had caught them. We had the best stadium, the biggest attendances and by far the best atmosphere. We even had Guy, Gilly and Gatesy the best commentators.

All we needed was promotion, but we knew that would come soon enough.

1997/98 was a season of re-birth - it was a season of drama, excitement and goals galore. Despite the Wembley defeat we were back... almost.

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