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Way Back When: 1998-99 - a season beyond the wildest dreams of Sunderland supporters!

Andrew Cockburn fondly retells the tale of Sunderland’s simply incredible 1998/99 campaign where Peter Reid’s men romped their way back to the top of English football.

Sunderland Team & trophy Photo by Paul Barker - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

What can one honestly say about our 1998-99 First Division Championship season? It seemed to exceed possibly the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic off our fan base. To say that we recovered from the heartbreak of defeat against Charlton in the 1998 First Division play-off final, would surely be an understatement, for the 1998-99 season proved to be one of the most memorable in the history of Sunderland AFC - certainly in modern times.

We kicked-off, rather ironically, at home to QPR, the side who’d taken two valuable points from us in the corresponding fixture the previous Easter, which ultimately proved rather costly to our automatic promotion hopes. But a 1-0 win courtesy of a late Kevin Phillips penalty was revenge of sorts, as we made a winning start to 1998-99.

We then took a point at Swindon before Tranmere and then Graham Taylor’s newly-promoted Watford both returned home no doubt smarting from 0-5 and 1-4 beatings respectively. Next up were fellow promotion hopefuls Ipswich at Portman Road, and we reversed the previous season’s 0-2 defeat (which had also proved costly to our automatic promotion hopes) in front of the SKY cameras, to go top of the table.

We’d also overcome Second Division York by 5-0 on aggregate in the first round of The Worthington Cup earlier in the month, so as August drew to a close, it was so far, so good.

Kevin Ball of Sunderland

Then after a two-week break due to International call-ups/the cancellation of our game at Crewe, we resumed against another fancied side: Wolves at Molineux. Our unbeaten start looked to be in jeopardy when Wolves took a second-half lead, but who other than Kevin Phillips levelled matters right at the death.

However, Phillips also sustained a rather unfortunate injury, which would keep him out until the start of 1999. The Lads we had no reason to worry, though, because in our next game, we provided a real treat for our fans, by walloping Oxford 7-0 at home. Our new strike force of Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges grabbing a brace apiece, as we chalked up a new record win for The Stadium Of Light.

We concluded September with draws at Portsmouth and Norwich, and also progressed in The Worthington Cup, after a comfortable 4-0 aggregate second round success versus Second Division Chester City.

October began with a 0-0 home draw against Bradford, in front of what was our second-biggest home crowd of just under 38,000 - the game a bit of a damp squib in all honesty. Then after another two-week International break/the cancellation of our home game with Crystal Palace, we chalked up a fine win at WBA, then-managed by our former gaffer Denis Smith.

Reid’s men then took a point from our top-of-the-table affair at leaders Huddersfield before a goal from Danny Dichio finally overcame a rather stubborn Bury side in our next home game. Meantime, our League Cup campaign seemed to be gathering momentum, for in the third round, we defeated Grimsby (AET) 2-1 at The Stadium Of Light, to book a rather mouth-watering fourth round tie at Everton.

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

Our first fixture of November was a first-ever visit to The Reebok Stadium to face Bolton, managed by former Roker favourite Colin Todd, in front of the SKY cameras. And we turned on the style, winning 3-0, and thus reclaiming top spot - a position we would retain for the remainder of the season.

Two days later we returned to the North West, and stuffed Crewe 4-1 before completing an early season “double” over Grimsby with a 3-1 win at The Stadium Of Light. The next game saw Reid’s men record a memorable night at Goodison Park as we overcame Everton, albeit on penalties, to progress further in The Worthington Cup.

Back in league action, the Lads chalked up a third straight league away success, this time winning 2-0 at Port Vale. But all good things must come to an end, and the following week lowly Barnsley shocked us with a 3-2 victory at The Stadium Of Light. However, this was soon forgotten a week hence, after a great 4-0 win at another of the fancied sides, Sheffield United, who were managed at the time by a certain Steve Bruce.

December began with a comfortable 3-0 win v Luton in the quarter-finals of The Worthington Cup at The Stadium Of Light, our reward being a semi-final tie v Leicester, managed at the time of course by future SAFC manager Martin O’Neill. We then recorded successive home wins v Stockport, Port Vale and Crystal Palace, before hitting a blip.

After a goalless draw against Birmingham at St Andrews, we suffered our first away reverse of the season, at bogey side Tranmere on Boxing Day, though we soon recovered to complete the double at home v Crewe, and as 1999 was about to dawn, things were looking good on all fronts.

Soccer - Worthington Cup - Fifth Round - Sunderland v Luton Town Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images

January, however, was slightly bittersweet month. It began with a narrow FA Cup third round win at Second Division Lincoln, and the following week saw Kevin Phillips’ much awaited comeback at QPR. He celebrated the occasion by scoring our first goal, though it took a late strike from his partner-in-goals, Niall Quinn, to salvage us a point.

Next up was a big game against promotion-rivals Ipswich at The Stadium Of Light. And in front of the SKY cameras, we displayed our promotion credentials with a fine 2-1 win.

Then came double cup disappointment. Firstly, Blackburn ended our FA Cup hopes for the season in the fourth round at Ewood Park, before Leicester were 2-1 victors at The Stadium Of Light in The Worthington Cup semi-final 1st leg. And to compound matters, the month ended with a 1-2 defeat at another fellow promotion contenders, Watford. This loss, though, proved to be our last reverse of the season.

February proved to be a generally profitable time, what with successive wins versus Swindon, Bristol City and Wolves. Though perhaps the less said about our 0-0 draw at Oxford, the first-ever pay-per-view game, the better really. Leicester had also ended our Worthington Cup hopes, after the semi-final 2nd leg ended 1-1 (2-3 on aggregate), which meant we could now focus entirely on our primary objective: a return to The Premiership.

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

In March, we were unstoppable, with home wins over Norwich, Portsmouth and Bolton. We also recorded a vital 1-0 success at another side with Premiership ambitions, Bradford City, when Niall Quinn was both match-winner and match saver. For after scoring the decisive goal, he then rather capably took over in goal from the injured Thomas Sorensen. Another away win came at Grimsby, so thanks to a winning month, we were now fifteen points clear at the top, and it seemed only a matter of time before we sealed our return to The Premiership.

After another enforced two-week International break/the cancellation of our game at Bury, we resumed with a home win over WBA on Easter Saturday. Then a draw at Palace, and another home win against Huddersfield, meant the promotion party could almost begin.

Promotion was sealed at Gigg Lane, in the re-arranged fixture versus Bury, thanks to a 5-2 win. SKP netted four of the goals and his fourth of the night was easily the pick of the bunch. All that remained now was the Championship, which was sealed three days hence against Barnsley at Oakwell. A 3-1 win sealed the deal with SKP netting another stupendous effort to seal the victory.

Cue more celebrations, for it really was now mission accomplished!

Kevin Phillips

April was concluded with a disappointing goalless home draw against Sheffield, but all things considered, I feel we were prepared to forgive one slight blip.

We then ended our away commitments for the season with a win at Stockport, which took us past the one-hundred points mark, before beating Birmingham in the last fixture at The Stadium Of Light, in front of the best home league crowd of the season: 41,634.

1998-99 had indeed been some season, when we recovered from the previous campaign’s disappointment in some style, winning The First Division by a fair distance from our rivals all courtesy of some rather scintillating football when at times we scored goals for fun, chalked up some memorable wins, and set new records for most points and wins, the fewest defeats partly thanks to Tommy Sorensen and his defence keeping a magnificent total of twenty-nine clean sheets.

It had truly been a campaign truly to remember. Now of course, we could look forward to a return to The Premiership, visits to Anfield, Old Trafford and the like, but in view of the way we’d steamrollered The First Division, I felt we need fear no-one. And so it proved.

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