On the 28th December 1991 I was seventeen years old and travelling to see Sunderland play Oxford United away. Despite the mediocrity of our campaign so far that year I was hopeful. We had a good team which included the likes of Ball and Bracewell, and Goodman and Byrne upfront. I think it said in the paper that Kieran Brady would be given a free role in this game. To my mind that meant he’d probably have the ball pretty much all the time.
But the free role thing didn’t work out. Except for an inventive handball Brady was anonymous. He handled whilst instinctively trying to stop a goal. He failed and was booked. Gary Bennett subsequently proved much better at this sort of thing in an FA Cup tie versus Spurs, years later. He got sent off.
Oxford powered their way to victory. Nil-nil at the break, they forced their goals in the second half, scoring three; a good dollop of headed flick-ons helping them get the better of us in our own box. It was a miserable day: exceptionally gloomy weather and football-wise.
The only high point was a half time kick around amongst school boys were our supporters, with nothing to cheer up to that point, got fully behind a young lad who reminded us of one our former keepers.
A penalty shootout took place and our young adopted keeper was greeted generously as he stepped forward to defend the goal we were stood behind. Each time it was his turn to try to save a penalty the shouts of support got louder and louder, becoming a barrage of guttural h’aways somewhere around penalty number four.
When he finally saved one the whole stand went ballistic. He turned to give us a Rocky Balboa style fist pump before disappearing off and leaving us to more meagre fare. The Oxford fans looked on, mostly unmoved.
Fast forward five weeks. The team was similar; the manager was different.
Malcolm Crosby had replaced Dennis Smith and we hadn’t lost since, winning four of our five games, including a 6-2 thrashing of Millwall.
I came into the ground just after kick off. The away stand was packed and we nestled in somewhere near the front, unable to get much higher. Unlike the previous meeting the atmosphere was charged with voluble expectation.
We had barely found our feet in the stands when John Byrne scored at the back post. Paul Hardyman, advancing into the box from the left, hit a cross very hard. The ball deflected high into the air off an Oxford player and landed conveniently for Byrne to slot in at close range. Oxford youth—team-penalty-saving-goalkeeper-like celebrations ensued. Some bloke next to my older brother grabbed hold of him, hugged him and didn’t let go for a bit. ’Aah just love Sun’lun me’,’ he said by way of an unnecessary apologetic explanation.
The first half carried on as it had started. This Sunderland side were rejuvenated, rampant and possibly seeking revenge: a striking contrast to what we had seen a few weeks ago. Paul Hardyman drilled in a second on twenty-four minutes and nobody was surprised.
I remember David Rush competing for everything in midfield. After one great ball winning tackle he then passed it back to an Oxford player. ’Well done son and get a grip,’ shouted somebody near me. John Byrne was impressive that night. Brian Atkinson smashed home a third goal near the start of the second half, but only after a beautifully struck curling shot from Byrne had come back off the post.
Braced with absolute confidence it felt like we would win from start to finish. This is not something I have always felt whilst watching Sunderland. However, Oxford scored two very late on: the second a dainty little prod from Dave Penney on ninety minutes. It was unthinkable that they would draw level after being second best for most of the match, and they didn’t.
Sunderland, in their red and white collared Hummel shirts and red shorts, progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup. Malcolm Crosby has since commented that he felt we had made real progress in that game, given how bad we had been previously at the Manor Ground. Future Sunderland player Andy Melville – who had played in both games – must have gone home and reflected how quickly things can change in football. And one very young Oxford supporting goalkeeper must have reflected that if Oxford were going to get beat by anyone, better to be by his new second favorite team.
I went home and, to my immense satisfaction, and after forensic stopping, pausing and very slightly fast forwarding the video tape, was able to pick myself out celebrating two of our goals. This was my first appearance on a national midweek sports programme. Sunderland, meanwhile, carried on all the way to the final.