Season 1997-98, our first season at The Stadium Of Light, had ended in disappointment... on perhaps the most heart-breaking manner possible.
Having been among the forerunners for most part, some rather costly dropped points near the end of the campaign meant we’d missed out on the chance of automatic promotion, and instead had to settle for the lottery of the play-offs. While we did penultimately qualify for Wembley, we were to suffer heartache, after eventually losing on penalties to Charlton, in perhaps the most gripping game ever to be witnessed at England’s Football Capital.
Fortunately, this had no negative effect on our 1998/99 campaign; we would more than make up for our latest Wembley disappointment and we began the new season rather encouragingly. We narrowly defeated QPR 1-0 at The SOL on the opening day (revenge of sorts for Rangers having nicked a point from a 2-2 draw in their previous visit, that helped put the brakes on our automatic promotion bid) then in the next home game we fared even better, sending Tranmere back to Merseyside on the wrong end of a 0-5 beating. Sandwiched in between these two games was a 1-1 draw at Swindon and the overcoming Second Division York by a 4-1 aggregate score in The Worthington Cup. Things looked promising so far.
But our next engagement was perhaps our trickiest of the campaign so far, even though these were still early days.
A home fixture against Graham Taylor’s newly-promoted Watford beckoned; a side who had made a very encouraging start to life back in the second tier, having won all three of their league games to date. As such, they stood in third place prior to their visit to Wearside, kept off the top of the table only on goal difference by Norwich, so the game was sure to be a good early test of our promotion credentials.
But it was one that we’d pass with flying colours, as The Hornets would be dispatched back to Hertfordshire with their stingers firmly between their legs... though not before giving us a bit of an early shock!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of it’s top-of-the-table billing, the game was rather lively in the opening stages. Sunderland had two penalty appeals turned down, after Danny Dichio and John Mullin had appeared to have been fouled inside the area, but it was Watford who were the more prominent side up front, as was emphasised when they grabbed the lead after just eleven minutes.
In all truth, however, the early breakthrough from the visitors was down to some sloppy defending on our part. The move was instigated by The Hornet’s powerful forward Michel Ngonge, who beat Darren Williams to a through ball - though instead of shooting, he decided to go for the cross. The ball evaded all the attempts of our defence to clear and fell nicely for Alan Smart, who lived up to his surname, beating Thomas Sorensen with a neat effort.
Both our players and fans seemed stunned by this early setback, but the side responded well, proceeding to subject Watford to a fair amount of pressure.
Danny Dichio was close to converting a couple of crosses from Nicky Summerbee. A fine piece of defending by Andy Melville then prevented Watford from going 2-0 up, but we continued to call the tune, our persistence paying off in the twenty-sixth minute when we drew level, thanks to a sublime piece of skill from Allan Johnston.
Kevin Phillips - who was of course up against his former club - was encompassed by two opposition players, but as the ball had reached Allan Johnston, the referee played the advantage rule. ‘Magic’ charged down on goal, before curling a superb left-foot shot from the left-hand edge of the area past ex-Sunderland keeper Alec Chamberlain. Great stuff!
This goal proved to be a bit of a turning point of sorts, for while Watford still appeared dangerous on the break, we now looked the more likely scorers, as Johnston and Summerbee in particular caused The Hornets most problems with some sterling work on the flanks.
Our pressure surely had to pay further dividends - and indeed it did - when we took a rather decisive grip on the game. Two goals came rapid-fire inside three minutes, just before the break.
A determined run by Phillips in the forty-second minute was halted by Dean Yates just outside the box, which resulted in a direct free-kick. The taker Summerbee, who’d caused the visitors an anxious moment from a similar situation earlier the game, this time sent in a grass cutter that bolted under the Watford defensive wall and into the net, with ‘keeper Chamberlain well beaten.
Then it got even better on the stroke of half-time, when Summerbee turned provider. A cross from Johnston was turned behind for a corner and Summerbee’s flag-kick was headed goalwards by Paul Butler, though it was Dichio who got the final touch to give us a 3-1 lead at the interval. Just the response we wanted to our early setback!
The second period saw us more or less in total control, as we proceeded to pummel Watford, with Johnston and Summerbee still at the centre of most of our attacking play, relentlessly sending cross after cross into an increasingly overworked Watford defence. Then, in a moment’s lapse, an error by Michael Gray let in Smart, but the ever-diligent Sorensen was alert to the danger, and able to deny the Watford midfielder his second goal of the game.
Thankfully normal service was soon resumed and, just past the hour-mark, we more-or-less put the issue of the contest beyond doubt with a fourth goal. Yet another free-kick from the left-hand side of the Watford area was curled in by Michael Gray and headed powerfully goalward by Kevin Ball, though Melville was at hand a couple of yards out to make it absolutely sure, glancing the ball home.
Could we now equal our goal tally in the previous game versus Tranmere? Might Kevin Phillips rather aptly get on the scoresheet against his old side, in the last half-hour or so? Well as it happened, neither event occurred, though it wasn’t for the want of trying.
It ultimately ended 4-1; it had been a fine night’s entertainment for another bumper home crowd (a formidable 36,587) and a sound display by the side, despite having complacently fallen behind so early on. We now boasted a 100% home league record to date in 1998/99, and in the process had netted ten times, conceding just the once. Certainly the form you could expect from potential Champions!
However, more crucially, this fine win took us to the top of the pile - a position we’d seldom relinquish during the remainder of the 1998/99 campaign. It also put us in fine fettle for our next match, a clash against another of the fancied sides - Ipswich - at Portman Road, in front of the Sky cameras.
We would come up trumps by 2-0, a result which reversed the result in the corresponding encounter near the end of the previous season - another that had proved rather costly to our automatic promotion hopes. So, at the end of August, we still sat proudly top of The Football League First Division, albeit on goal difference from Wolves - our next opponents in what was sure to be a mouth-watering clash at Molineux.
Suffice it to say, our 1998-99 campaign was shaping up well. There’d be a lot more drama and excitement to come and, far more importantly of course, a table-topping success - for want of an understatement - achieved in record-breaking fashion!
A true season to remember.