Sunderland, under Peter Reid, were about to enter their first Premier League campaign in what would become our last season at Roker Park.
The summer of 1996 was boom-time for football: Euro 96 was a huge success, interest in football had found new heights and Peter Reid had wholly transformed a team not nearly as bad as what its league positions - over five long seasons - had indicated. With very few changes, great organisation and team spirit we went from second tier stragglers to table-topping Champions!
The team was one-paced but it was full of character and full of characters - and the on-pitch persona was replicated off it with Reid and Bobby Saxton growling from the side-lines.
Bally, Ord, Melville and Bracewell were an impenetrable defensive wall, Kubicki and Scott classy full backs, Mickey Gray was still a winger at this time, Martin Smith was an enigma and the likes of Craig Russell and Michael Bridges were full of promise.
Likeable though the squad may have been, it was thin and naive, lacking both quality and top-flight experience. Euro 96 saw England host Europe’s best talent and that summer - we watched and we hoped - that we might be able to pick up a bargain from Bulgaria, Czech or Romania. Trialists did come and go, but none signed.
Instead, Reid went for what he knew: the experience of Tony Coton and Niall Quinn plus the maverick Alex Rae. We also added youth in John Mullin and Darren Williams – each would sign for a pittance but would conclusively prove to be bargains.
That summer, Newcastle broke the British transfer record and bought Alan Shearer. At the time, Tyneside was a difficult place to work if you were a footballer and many would’ve argued that the £1.5 million we paid for Niall Quinn was better value for money. As you may have guessed, the popularity of that argument changed as the years went on.
Still, we had character and characters. That’s the Sunderland way.
The season started with a classic Avec kit and a home game against Leicester City; this was the Leicester of Martin O’Neill, a big tough team who were well-suited for life in the top flight. We were disappointed with a drab goalless draw but that mid-week - with Quinn making his debut - we thumped Nottingham Forest 4-1 away and then followed up that formidable performance with a commendable goalless draw at Anfield.
A good start by all accounts... before the first Wear-Tyne derby anyway.
This was the season of the away ban and there was an odd nervous atmosphere as people looked into the eyes of any unfamiliar faces who were around them.
Sunderland fans had suffered greatly over the season before that as Newcastle were challenging Man United at the top of the Premier League and we were bitter at our stagnation.
The delirium when Martin Scott tucked away a penalty on 19 minutes to put us ahead was something else. Half time and we were one up - but this was the Newcastle team of Beardsley, Shearer, Ferdinand and Ginola. Two quick second-half goals saw us go down to a 2-1 defeat - a pie landing in the face of Ginola from the Main Stand paddock was scant consolation. We gave a good fight though – it was certainly a proud performance.
After that the season settled and we garnered some draws, some wins and a good few defeats. In this period however, we lost Quinn and Coton - our two big signings - for what appeared to be season-ending injuries. Our two most experienced players out. The back-ups of Paul Stewart and Lionel Perez were widely regarded and then evidently found to be not of the same stature or class. Nevertheless, at the end of October we were in 13th place. We would take that.
November saw a memorable away day at Everton with Russell scoring and Bridges netting a brace. There was a feeling that Reid trusted neither in this league at this time - but on the occasions that they played they contributed, as did Martin Smith. Reid seemed to prefer the experience of Stewart and Kelly and the energy of Gray over Smith. There was also the not-so-small matter of Kubicki being dropped in favour of the hapless Gareth Hall.
Kubicki had been an excellent player and was doing fine; he was in line to break George Mulhall’s consecutive appearance record when he was inexplicably dropped. He did win his place back soon after when Martin Scott suffered a long-term injury, but consequently this was another huge blow to our survival chances.
Despite the return Dariusz made to the side, team selections continued to be controversial. Reid appeared stubborn – his adamant resolve on transfers brought in was also evident as we didn’t act to cover injuries. Fanciful stories circulated about Paul Scholes, Andy Cole and Lee Clark – we have all seen Premier Passions and witnessed the board room conversations around transfers. Still, on New Year’s Day we were 11th after December wins against Chelsea and Derby – a brilliant Kevin Ball diving header in front of the Fulwell End against Chelsea sealing a 3-0 win.
January saw a double header against Arsenal with a vital win in the league followed by a midweek loss in the cup with Denis Bergkamp scoring one of the best goals ever seen at Roker. This was a time of truly great players competing at their peak in the Premier League. It is to the credit of Darren Williams, Richard Ord, John Mullin and others that they competed and competed well. However, the desperation for attacking signings grew by the day as goals were scarce and the tension was building – we all knew what was coming...
February and March were bleak with defeat after defeat compounded further by the Ronan Harazi shambles. Jan Erikson was brought in to add some depth, quality and experience to the defence but was disregarded after a singular game in favour of Lee Howey as Andy Melville was injured. Yet another injury blow that would inevitably cost us dear.
When Manchester United arrived at Roker in late March, we were getting desperate as our form stretched to eight consecutive games without a win, no worthwhile signings to speak of and a front two of John Mullin and 19-year-old Bridges. This was the United of Schmeichel, Irwin, Beckham and Cantona – Giggs rested on the bench somewhat mercifully.
Incredibly, however, Micky Gray and John Mullin saw us 2-0 up with goals at the Fulwell end, United pulled one back but we held on for a great win - against all of the odds!
Transfer deadline day came and Reid acted. Allan Johnston and Chris Waddle arrived on Wearside but the defeats kept on coming – the odd draw, perhaps, but we couldn’t win. Simply, we couldn’t score enough goals.
A great point in the Tyne-Wear derby was gained with the delight on Micky Gray’s face a joy and Waddle rolling back the years in a brilliant performance. Yet we continued sliding down the table – slumping now to 18th place after a home defeat to the Spice Boys of Liverpool in their cream Adidas kits.
The bad form’s end was threatened with a surprise upturn following more derby delight with a win at Boro – Darren Williams heading home against his hometown team. It wasn’t to last though, following from this was a disastrous midweek loss to Southampton – Reid getting everything wrong that night – again evident on Premier Passions.
We then had our emotional last match at Roker against Everton. A day that will live with forever in the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to be there.
Roker Park was a special place – the green turf, the smells and the unique sounds. I have a recurring dream where it still exists and we go there one least time to see one last match. Alas, that is just a dream.
But the three-nil win against Everton with a brilliant free kick by Waddle in front of the Fulwell is and was very much real - it remains a memory that won’t fade.
The last day of the season and we headed to Selhurst Park – the hell that is Selhurst Park – to play Wimbledon. A win and we would survive. Ten thousand or more Sunderland fans gathered in South London; the Met lost a motorbike as a daft lad decided to take it for a ride. Wimbledon were on the beach and still won as the team froze.
Was it exhaustion metal or physical? It is hard to know, but certainly they froze.
The wait for Coventry’s result from the delayed kick off at White Hart Lane was agony. Heads in hands – we knew, we just knew. We were relegated – again – after putting up an unbelievable fight – a fight with limited resources, hampered by Reid’s stubbornness – but only made possible by his and the team’s character – injuries and lack of adequate replacements killed us. The Sunderland way.
It was the End of Roker Park – the end of the Brit Pop era – Euro 96 was a memory as we dusted ourselves down and cautiously looked forward to a new era in our new home. 1996/97 was a great and memorable season, despite its ending.
All heads would soon be lifted out of the hands and eyes would fixate now on the future.
We’d be back. We’d make sure of it - the Sunderland way.