Back in December 1995, Peter Reid’s first full season in charge was beginning to get very interesting indeed.
After parachuting in to replace Mick Buxton as manager with seven games remaining the previous year, the former Manchester City manager was in the process of turning the club around in a full 180 degrees in less than a year.
Following the first minor miracle in saving us from the drop, after vital victories over the likes of Swindon Town and Sheffield United, the rumours began to circulate on what big names might be joining him at Roker Park to begin the revolution - but it didn’t quite work out like that.
Reid went to work fairly quietly under the restrictions of what had to be a restricted budget as the club were not only aiming to invest in a brand new stadium, but £650,000 was used to bring Brett Angell to the club just weeks before he took charge.
The main strengthening came behind the scenes, which kind of spilled over onto the pitch when firstly, Paul Bracewell signed on from Newcastle United on a free transfer as player-assistant manager, and secondly, Bobby Saxton joined the club as first team coach.
On the playing side it would only be 20-year-old John Mullin, who was viewed as one for the future, who signed from Burnley who boosted the ranks other than Paul Bracewell in the summer, and it would be essentially the same squad, who only just survived relegation who would have another crack at Division One.
It was a strange feeling and nobody quite knew what to expect, and when we had won one of the first five and sat in 17th position at the beginning of September you would have thought there might be concerns that we might be in trouble. But performances were good and it was clear we were heading in a much different style of football where we built from the back and played some decent stuff.
By the end of September we were in the top six and had produced two good performances against Roy Evans’ Liverpool in the League Cup, the optimism was beginning to grow.
Our first fixture in December resulted in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace at Roker Park, but more importantly put us second in the table behind Mick McCarthy’s Millwall, who were also our next opponents. On a Saturday afternoon at Roker Park that was never to be forgotten, especially for Craig Russell, we ran home 6-0 winners to top the table for the first time.
A draw at Reading next up kept us top of the table before we had another top-of-the-table clash when we travelled to Jim Smith’s Derby County who were only a point behind us in second.
The big-pressure games were coming thick and fast and Sunderland had proved they could handle them after dispatching league leaders Millwall only two weeks prior to kick-off at the Baseball Ground, and just after the half hour, it appeared we might do it again.
An out-swinging corner from Martin Smith was seemingly dealt with by ease by the home side, but they gifted Michael Gray with the ball on the edge of the box who took a touch to get it out his feet before hitting low to goalkeepers right and into the back of the net to score his second of the season.
Then Derby County kicked the game off again, and things changed.
The ball went ball to Igor Stimac who played one pass forward that seemingly caught our bypassed our non-existent midfield who were probably still celebrating the goal, to eventually find Dean Sturridge on the edge of the box who slipped it to the right to Marco Gabbiadini, of all people, to smash into the opposite bottom corner passed Alec Chamberlain to put Derby back on level terms.
It was then a nervous game, on a mud-bath of pitch, where Sunderland were ironically wearing our third-strip that was all yellow and more suited to the beach, and it would be ten minutes after the break when Derby took advantage.
It came from a long, high ball down the pitch that Dean Sturridge and Richard Ord were chasing, and when the Derby striker got on the wrong side of the Murton-born defender, there was only one outcome when there was a tangle of legs. Penalty to the home side it was and up stepped Ron Willems to score without Chamberlain getting close.
With around five minutes remaining, it was Sturridge’s turn to repay Gabbiadini’s assist in the first half when Daryl Powell went on a blistering run down the left hand side, before playing a square ball to the ex-Sunderland striker on the edge of the box, who then rolled it to the unmarked Sturridge on the right to slot past the Sunderland keeper into the bottom corner.
It was a rare blip during a fantastic season that we ended up having pay-back over Derby before the season was out.
Saturday 23rd December, 1995
Endsleigh League Division One
Derby County 3-1 Sunderland
[Gabbiadini 36’, Willems (pen) 55’, Sturridge 84’ - Michael Gray 35’]
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott, Michael Gray, Agnew (Hall), Martin Gray (Kelly), Smith (Aiston), Russell, Phil Gray
Derby County: Hoult, Rowett, Nicholson, Yates, Stimac, Flynn, Powell, Carsley, Willems (Simpson), Sturridge, Gabbiadini Substitute not used: Trollope, Wrack