If somebody had tried to tell me that defeat at Wembley via a penalty shoot-out in May 1997 was a good thing as I was walking through a puddle of piss on my way out of the run-down national stadium, I wouldn’t like to guess what my immediate reaction would have been - but ultimately, it worked out.
The following season, even though we only added Thomas Sorensen and Paul Butler to the squad in the summer and Gavin McCann mid-season, we completely romped the Nationwide Football League Division One, breaking all sorts of records in doing so.
A final total of 105 points, only three defeats all season, a mere 10 goals conceded at the Stadium of Light during the campaign and 91 goals were scored by the lads where almost half were put away by the Kevin Phillips/Niall Quinn partnership.
So, surely we felt optimism ahead of Peter Reid’s second crack at the Premier League, right?
Well, this is Sunderland, and our last two attempts at establishing ourselves as a top-flight club had gone agonisingly wrong, so I for one was wary of thinking this time would be any different - until Reid went to work in the transfer market.
In the first week of July 1999, the signatures of two top-class defenders were confirmed in the form of Thomas Helmer and Steve Bould. Both in the twilight of their careers but names that had a wealth of experience at the very top level and then, three weeks later, we smashed our transfer record with a signing that suggested we meant business.
In late July, we confirmed the £3.75 million signing of 30-year-old Swedish international Stefan Schwarz from Valencia, and considering the fact Michael Bridges had signed for Leeds United for £5 million and it was clear that Allan Johnston was in the midst of a contract dispute, it was just what was needed.
Excitement was high by the time the opening day came around which took us on the road to Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea. Ahead of kick-off rumours spread of a bust-up between the management team and new signing Helmer, which were fuelled by the sight of 20-year-old Chris Lumsdon on the left side of midfield.
It was his first start since February 1998 and only his second start for the club in total against a side that had finished third in the Premier League the previous season, and the sight of the young Newcastle-born midfielder only helped to fan the flames of the days conspiracy theories - especially after Zola, Poyet et al took us apart and ran out 4-0 winners.
However painful it was to stomach at the time, it was a useful reminder that points would be harder fought than they were in the previous campaign.
Victories over Watford and Newcastle over our next five fixtures found us in the safety of mid-table going into the second month of the season, and if that had us feeling pretty good about ourselves, then we were in dreamland after the run that followed, as it was the best run of successive Premier League victories for the club to this day.
Beginning with a 2-0 victory over Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City at the Stadium of Light, we then demolished Derby County 5-0 at Pride Park, which was followed by a home win over Sheffield Wednesday via the only goal of the game and yet another convincing 4-0 win at Valley Parade against Bradford City.
Four Premier League wins in a row, scoring twelve goals in the process and not conceding a single goal. These times don’t come around too often.
Next up, was the visit of John Gregory’s Aston Villa to the Stadium of Light, and after finishing 6th the previous year, they were sniffing around another top-six finish once again as they sat 9th ahead of kick-off, only three points behind the Lads who were 4th.
As the Sky cameras rolled in for what was only the fifth meeting between the two sides in the previous 14 years, Aston Villa were without their leading scorer the previous year, and general bogeyman for Sunderland in past years, Julian Joachim. He was replaced by Darius Vassell who was only making his third start for the club.
Peter Reid kept the same XI who took apart Bradford City last time out and at half time, both managers would have been reasonably pleased, where despite Darius Vassell looking dangerous for the visitors and Niall Quinn doing his thing for the Lads, it remained goalless.
But, only moments into the second half, we were behind. A rare clumsy challenge from Steve Bould midway inside our own half on Villa’s right hand side gave the opportunity for Newcastle-born Alan Thompson to take an in-swinging free-kick with his left foot. The ball arrived at a low trajectory at the near post and with maybe everyone expecting a deeper cross, it found Dion Dublin’s head who neatly finished at the near post from almost the edge of the area.
On the hour mark we were level in a manner that got the juices flowing for Keys and Gray back in the studio. A long diagonal ball from Paul Butler from just inside the Villa half was swung into the area which resulted in a trademark touch by Niall Quinn via his chest, which was looking to take it into his path towards goal before it was oddly deflected by Damian Delaney.
The replay showed that it had in fact touched Quinn’s hand first and then deflected onto Delaney’s arm who was looking in the opposite direction, but no VAR and David Elleray pointed to the spot. Up steps Kevin Phillips, who sent David James the wrong way and for those who are old enough, James Brown rang out over the din of the crowd.
The three points were there for the taking for either side and neither were seemingly settling for a draw, but it wasn’t until ten minutes remaining that there was a breakthrough.
Michael Gray gave the ball wide to Stefan Schwarz on the left hand side, and as the ball rolled towards the touchline level with the 18-yard box, most players might have taken a touch and rolled it back to their full-back - but this was Stefan Schwarz.
With virtually no backlift, the former Arsenal midfielder took one touch, and dug out an unbelievable cross that was inch-perfect for Kevin Phillips to meet right in the centre of the goal, six yards out, to give James no chance in the Villa goal.
A fifth successive win moved us up to 3rd in the Premier League table, but Peter Reid wasn’t in celebratory mood after the performance:
I thought we were second best, particularly first half where our passing was poor and we gave it away. If you give the ball away that often in a football match you are going to need to be fit because you’re going to have to run about a lot.
I thought they were the better side and thought we got a break on the penalty, but one thing I know about my side is that they keep on going.
Five successive wins in the Premier League... halcyon days indeed.
FA Carling Premiership
Monday 18th October 1999
Sunderland 2-1 Aston Villa
(Phillips (pen) 60’, 82’ - Dublin 47’)
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Bould, Butler, Gray, Summerbee (Reddy), McCann (Ball), Rae (Roy), Schwarz, Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Marriott, Dichio
Aston Villa: James, Delaney, Calderwood, Southgate, Barry, Taylor, Boateng (Stone), Hendrie, Thompson, Dublin, Vassell (Merson) Substitutes not used: Enckelman, Wright, Watson