Peter Reid’s Sunderland were flying high in the Premier League on their first season back – sitting fourth, to be precise.
Phillips and Quinn were scoring for fun, and with the classy Schwarz prompting from midfield and the mighty Steve Bould securing things at the back.
After a magnificent early-season run, we’d had a bit of a blip over the Christmas period – a stuffing by a Don Hutchison-inspired Everton on Boxing Day was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Manchester United – having been 2-0, the Roy Keane-inspired Premier League and European Champions showed just why they’d won those accolades.
Coming off the back of a 1-0 loss at Wimbledon, the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at Championship team Tranmere looked to be one of those infamous banana skins. And so it proved.
Tranmere at the time were managed by John Aldridge, a player who Sunderland should have signed in the 80s. He played seven seasons for the Prenton Park club after returning to England after a brief sojourn to Spain; the last two of those as player/manager before hanging up his boots to fully concentrate on the managerial aspect.
Aldridge had done a great job at Tranmere – in hindsight, it’s puzzling why he didn’t get another job after leaving the club in 2001. He’d make them a really difficult team to play against, and their long-throw merchant Dave Challinor made Rory Delap look like he was throwing a cannonball.
Sunderland lined up like this: Sorensen, Makin, Bould (Craddock 46), Butler, Gray, Summerbee, Roy, Rae, McCann, Schwarz (Reddy 82), Phillips. Subs not used: Marriott, Williams, Oster.
In the Tranmere team was David Kelly, the player Reid had splashed out on in the Championship winning season, but failed to really spark at Sunderland.
The game was a typical old-fashioned cup-tie, with both sides causing problems – but it was Tranmere who struck first. Wayne Allison sweeping home to send Prenton Park wild.
Allison is another of those players who always seemed to do well against us, and a look at the record books shows he bagged 7 goals in 13 starts against Sunderland in his career. Given his career average shows a goal around every 4.5 games, it’s safe to say he enjoyed playing against us.
We threatened to get an equaliser – in fact we were well on top for large spells. Phillips forced a great save from Champ Man legend John Achterberg, while the keeper also tipped over a Chris Makin long-ranger, preventing a very rare goal for the popular fullback.
The real fun started in the last minute of the game.
Clint Hill, who’d already been booked, brought down Alex Rae near the edge of the Tranmere box. Referee Rob Harris brandished a second yellow; Hill was sent off.
In the moments preceding the incident, Tranmere were lining up a sub – Stephen Frail replacing Dave Challinor.
However, as the dismissed Hill exited the field, Frail entered... and Challinor stayed on.
There were only a matter of minutes left, and as the free-kick was swung in, Frail headed clear.
Amid furious scenes on the touchline, the referee was alerted to the mistake, rectified the issue... and restarted with the correct numbers on the field – but only for a second or two before blowing the final whistle.
Referee Harris needed a police escort off the field; Reid was apoplectic.
Post-game, Reid was magnanimous, admitting Tranmere deserved their win, and any decision about the validity of the game was ‘out of his hands’.
The FA did investigate the game but, come Monday afternoon, the suits had decided it was absolutely fine for a team to play with an extra player, and Sunderland were still out of the cup.
Yet another incident filed under ‘It could only happen to Sunderland’,