Looking back at the Peter Reid era, thoughts immediately gravitate towards record breaking title winning seasons or occupying Champions League positions at Christmas, so it’s easy to forget that questions were being asked of the manager 24 years ago.
The move to the Stadium of Light had managed to lift the spirits somewhat after our first season in the Premier League ended in relegation. Accusations were directed at the management and the owners that not enough investment had been made to strengthen the squad in an effort to survive.
The feeling around the place was that finishing in the drop zone was avoidable and there was a tense feeling around Roker Park as the curtain closed on 99 years of history when Liverpool provided the opposition in the final game at our old ground.
But, new stadium, new season and new start and investment was on the horizon as we attempted to bounce back to the top flight at the first attempt. Lee Clark was the marquee signing when we almost doubled our previous transfer record to shell out around £2.5 million to bring him from up the road to replace the ageing Paul Bracewell.
Peter Reid also shelled out to bring Chris Makin, Chris Byrne and Edwin Zoetebier, and of course, Kevin Phillips also joined the ranks. Ahead of the opening day of the season as hopes were high for a successful promotion campaign. But things didn’t quite go to plan.
Of the first four league games, we lost three and won only one - which came in our first competitive game at our new home against Manchester City, where Kevin Phillips got off the mark for the Lads and Niall Quinn scored his first of the season.
Quinn, who was our previous record signing at £1.3 million from Manchester City the previous summer, had struggled with a knee injury during his first season that had still not cleared up as we entered the current campaign.
This was evident in our first run of fixtures when Quinn had missed a number of chances and it was clear to everyone something wasn’t quite right as described in more detail here.
Niall Quinn would go back under the surgeons knife in early September and even though results picked up in comparison to the first month or so of the season, we still found ourselves travelling down to the south coast sitting 12th in Division One on the back of a run of just two wins in the last nine league games.
Ahead of our trip to Fratton Park was a significant draw at home to Dave Bassett’s much fancied Nottingham Forest. And although the draw was slightly significant in terms of a point against a potential promotion rival, the big moment came six minutes from the end when Niall Quinn replaced Michael Bridges up top for Sunderland and caused the opposition six minutes of chaos.
He’d only been away for just over two months, but word was that the medical team had finally got to the bottom of his long term knee problem and it had the same feeling as a new signing, especially when we had the promising cameo preview against Forest.
In conjunction with the resurgence of Niall Quinn leading up to kick-off at Fratton Park, we had the bitter-sweet transfer of Nicky Summerbee to Wearside. A player of good pedigree and experience of playing at the top level - with Niall Quinn.
There was a tinge of sadness to see fans’ favourite Craig Russell go in the opposite direction to Maine Road, but it was a time of change. Things were about to get interesting.
The fixture down at Portsmouth looked, at least on paper, a perfect opportunity to get on track and after his six minute cameo the previous Saturday, Niall Quinn replaced Michael Bridges in partnering Kevin Phillips up top. Otherwise it was the same XI that faced Forest that would start against Terry Fenwick’s relegation threatened Portsmouth.
In typical Sunderland fashion we were behind after only seven minutes when Australian international John Aloisi gave the home side the lead. A lead that would only last four minutes, however, when Niall Quinn announced his return on his first start after injury by putting Sunderland level from a Martin Smith corner.
Another three minutes later and Lee Clark gave Sunderland the lead, after which there would only be one outcome. Allan Johnston stretched our lead to 3-1 just after the half hour and after replacing Martin Smith at the break after he took a knock in the first half, Nicky Summerbee would add the icing to the Sunderland cake by adding a fourth on his debut with 25 minutes still left on the clock.
This set off a run that would essentially last the next three and a half seasons, but for the remainder of this campaign we would lose only 3 league games in the next 29 before we entered the play-offs.
Saturday 15th November 1997
Nationwide Football League Division One
Portsmouth 1-4 Sunderland
(Aloisi 7’ - Quinn 11’, Clark 14, Johnston 33’, Summerbee 65’)
Sunderland: Perez, Holloway, Craddock, Williams, Gray, Johnston, Clark, Rae, Smith (Summerbee), Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Melville, Bridges
Portsmouth: Knight, Pethick, Whitbread, Perrett (Foster), Awford, Thomson, Durnin, Igoe (Enes), Hillier, Turner, Aloisi Substitutes not used: Waterman