The turnaround under Peter Reid seemed remarkable at the time.
In hindsight, it was simply astounding.
Upon Reid’s arrival in April 1995, he took a struggling bunch of players by the scruff of the neck and, with inspirational management and only a couple of signings, turned a relegation-threatened side into one that oozed confidence and class.
And was destined for the top.
Although the season had gotten off to a solid, if slow and unspectacular, start, the team had hit a great run of form in the latter part of 1995, which had seen them top the table for a few weeks.
Thanks to the inclement weather, the team had last played on 23rd December – a 3-1 defeat to a Marco Gabbiadini-inspired Derby County, which had dropped us to second.
An FA Cup Third Round tie at Old Trafford a fortnight later offered the opportunity to get some mileage in the team’s post-Christmas legs for the new year promotion charge.
More importantly, it was a great test of just how good we actually were.
One way or another, this would be a reality check.
Manchester United were fast becoming the force they turned out to be for the vast majority of the 90s and 00s – they’d won the title in two of the past three seasons, had an array of stars, and would go on to win the title this season, too.
For Sunderland, Paul Bracewell – one of the two real signings Peter Reid had been able to make since his arrival (the other being David Kelly) – was recalled to the side after missing a few games through injury.
Manchester United named a first-choice line up which included future Sunderland managers Steve Bruce and Roy Keane; the only big-name absentee was Peter Schmeichel, whose place was taken by perennial 90s reserve keeper Kevin Pilkington.
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott, Michael Gray, Bracewell, Ball (Agnew 25), Russell, P Gray (Howey 87), Kelly (Smith 82).
Manchester United: Pilkington, G Neville (P Neville 66), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Beckham (Sharpe 60), Keane, Butt, Giggs, Cole, Cantona. Sub not used: McClair
Sunderland, backed by 7000 travelling fans – at a time when away league crowds were severely restricted by United – gave a tremendous account of themselves.
Despite going behind to a Nicky Butt goal; the midfielder hooking home over Chamberlain after a flowing move on 13 minutes, Sunderland held on and went in just a goal behind at half time, despite losing skipper Kevin Ball through injury before the half hour.
The game turned on its head midway through the second half.
First, after some nice work by Michael Gray who, as he often reminds people, started at Manchester United, Ball’s replacement Agnew powered the ball home from around 30 yards out – squeezing it in past Pilkington’s despairing dive.
Schmeichel would have saved it... but that mattered not.
Moments later, a brave challenge from Ord allowed Bracewell to hoist a raking ball up to set Craig Russell free on goal. After a couple of headed attempts to control the ball, the Jarra Arra fired a lovely left-foot strike across Pilkington and into the corner of the Stretford End net – sending the travelling fans wild for the second time in five minutes.
Sunderland looked to be heading for a famous victory, however ten minutes before time Cantona levelled.
Michael Gray conceded a needless foul to sub Phil Neville, which allowed Lee Sharpe to swing a free kick in from the right-hand side.
Cantona – who’d only returned to football a couple of months earlier after his suspension for booting a mouthy cockney – rose highest to nod past a hesitant Chamberlain, shattering the dreams of the Sunderland supporters sitting in what we’d brandished ‘Cantona Safe Seats’.
This was the moment that allegedly made Reid’s mind up about Chamberlain’s suitability to be his long-term first choice. A couple of weeks later Shay Given arrived and took Chamberlain’s place; and while the former Luton keeper returned to the side after Given’s season-ending injury at Barnsley in April, he left on a free transfer at the end of the season.
The replay at Roker was another tightly-contested affair.
Sunderland went ahead thanks to Phil Gray’s opener – slotting through the recalled Schmeichel's legs – before Scholes equalised with 20 minutes left.
The game seemed to be heading for extra time until Andy Cole, who’d signed from Newcastle the previous year, scored a last-minute winner – and United would go on to win the FA Cup – in these days it was still as big a deal as winning the league.
Despite the reversal, the team was cheered from the field.
That night, we knew we were watching the real deal.