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My first ‘regular’ Sunderland away day – playing Blackburn off the park (and losing) in 1999

“Eventually the bubble did burst, but memories of that happy, fulfilling time watching Sunderland in the late 1990s will stay with me forever.”

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Southampton Photo by Steve Morton/EMPICS via Getty Images

Watching Sunderland had been very much a home affair for me – until the classic play-off final of 1998 became my first sight of the Lads away from either Roker Park or the Stadium of Light.

My first ‘regular’ away game was eight months later, when I accompanied my dad to Ewood Park for an FA Cup third round tie against Blackburn Rovers in January 1999.

Now this was a mouth-watering prospect for a fresh-faced 16-year-old, desperate to see how Peter Reid’s highly-impressive side, riding high at the top of Division One, would get on against Premier League opponents.

There seemed to be no stopping Sunderland at this point in the club’s history. We’d moved on from the disappointment of the previous season and continued to play some truly scintillating football.

Peter Reid Getty Images

Dad and I were full of good cheer and enthusiasm as we departed our home in Haydon Bridge, and I remember dad flying a red and white scarf from the back window of the Escort estate, ahead of our journey down the M6.

It’s amazing how you remember every detail of your early matches, and I recall us enjoying a delicious flask of soup in a car park somewhere near Ewood Park, after receiving directions from a middle aged man in a Blackburn fleece.

The thought of stepping into a different stadium excited me, and this was a ground which had hosted the Premier League champions less than four years earlier.

Our tickets were in the Darwen End – right at the top of the stand – much higher even than I’d experienced in the south east corner at the SOL.

But we couldn’t see the big screen – one of the first in English football - down below us in the corner between the Darwen End and the small stand at Ewood - then known as the Walkergate stand.

After spending most of my pocket money on an over-priced Yorkie bar, we mulled over the matchday programme, and there was much focus on Blackburn’s former Magpie winger Keith Gillespie. Surely we’d keep him quiet.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

For the most part we did. Blackburn were struggling in the Premier League at the time, and we played them off the park from start to finish.

In a slight change from our usual 4-4-2 with two flying wingers, Reid chose to play an extra man in midfield, with Alex Rae joining Gavin McCann and Lee Clark in the engine room, and Nicky Summerbee settling for a rare place on the bench.

We created plenty of width, and Rovers couldn’t cope with the potent partnership of Allan Johnson, and the overlapping Micky Gray on the left wing.

Only a goal was lacking, and it clearly wasn’t our day when Clark had a goal dubiously chalked off for offside, before against the run of play, that man Gillespie struck in the 67th minute.

The hosts had a man sent off, and Reid introduced Summerbee as we continued to lay siege on the Blackburn goal, but it wasn’t to be as the game finished 1-0.

We left disappointed but overcome with pride that our Sunderland team had dominated Premier League opposition. There was genuine excitement as we looked forward to winning the Division One title, and getting another chance at the top flight.

It seemed obvious that we were now better equipped for the Premier League than we had been in 1996/97, with a brand-new stadium and crowds of over 40,000 for every home match.

That evening I bought an evening paper and placed the match report in my scrapbook. We believed good times were around the corner, and we were right, with two seventh-placed finishes in 1999/2000 and 2000/2001 – both of which should have been higher.

Eventually the bubble did burst, but memories of that happy, fulfilling time in the late 1990s will stay with me forever.