As I am sure the majority of fans would agree, Sunderland’s 1998/1999 season represents one of the high-water marks in our recent history, as we put another Wembley heartbreak behind us and stormed back to the Premiership with a then-record 105 points. It was a season of countless memorable moments, superb goals, last-minute dramas, and many players captured at their absolute peak.
Such a season demanded to be commemorated on tape, so that future generations of fans could see what a ‘proper’ Sunderland team looked like, and to allow us to reflect on a time when Aasics manufactured our kit, we had wingers who would take on and beat a man, and pitch-side advertising consisted of billboards emblazoned with Vaux and Courtina Corned Beef, as opposed to the electronic mish-mash of 2020.
Simply titled, ‘Champions’, this video review is a product of high quality and exceptional drama. Produced by Tyne Tees Television and narrated by Simon O’Rourke, it is a comprehensive production that, at over two hours, cuts few corners as it documents our progress that season.
All of the iconic moments are included, from the 7-0 demolition of Oxford, featuring a peroxide-blonde Michael Gray channelling the spirit of Roberto Carlos like never before, to Martin Smith’s two-goal salvo against Grimsby, as well as a last-minute draw snatched at QPR in early 1999, courtesy of a pinpoint Michael Bridges cross and Niall Quinn header (‘Off the bench again to make a difference,’ as Roger Tames memorably yelled)
Many of that season’s intriguing sub-plots are covered: How we coped with the loss of Kevin Phillips, Michael Gray’s redemption, as well as Thomas Sorensen’s impact and how the team used the pain of the playoff defeat as a fuel to scale greater heights. O’Rourke’s narration is very good: no filler, just clarity and concision.
Some of the game footage included comes from Sky Sports, so we are treated, at intervals, to the dulcet tones of Rob Hawthorne, and his then-sidekick, Alan Brazil. The Barnsley title-clinching game was memorable in this respect, not least because of Brazil’s proto-Gary Neville moan after THAT Kevin Phillips curler. It seems that, in that regard, the Scotsman was some thirteen years ahead of his time!
Throughout the review, the thoughts and observations of Michael Gray, Kevin Ball, and Peter Reid are neatly dropped in between certain games, offering a player’s perspective on how the season went. Ball reflects on the importance of the entire squad playing its part, while Reid, in his gloriously laid-back Scouse style, brushes off our early-1999 wobble (‘Three defeats in a week’, mused O’Rourke’) as something and nothing. Confidence, among both players and management, was sky-high during that season, and boy, does it show.
An interesting touch is also provided by capturing the thoughts of losing managers to the SOL, including Graham Taylor and Alan Ball (‘I wish them well, because these people deserve it, they’re fabulous fans, said Ball, graciously) as well as that most uplifting of inclusions: footage of Peter Reid visiting sick children at a local hospital over Christmas. The feel-good factor certainly spread beyond the confines of the SOL that season, without a doubt.
One of my personal highlights of the programme comes towards the end, where the Bob Murray Gates were unveiled before a home game against Sheffield United. O’Rourke highlights Murray’s contribution to the achievements of that season, and the pride of the man himself is obvious when he reflects on the records we broke during 98/99, as well as his message to the fans for the following season: stick together, and battle together. Prophetic and clearly heartfelt words from our then-chairman.
The programme ends with footage of our open-top bus parade to Seaburn, and one of the most iconic quotes of the entire season, from Kevin Ball, as stood on the balcony of the Seaburn Centre and lifted the trophy for all to see: “This is for every one man jack of you. Well done.”
Watch ‘Champions’, and revel in a Sunderland team in full-flow, during a season where just about everything clicked into gear absolutely beautifully, and we had a team to truly be proud of.