It seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? In some respects it is. But 21 years ago today, we headed to Highbury sitting in third place in the Premier League.
Third place in the Premier League.
This was our second season back in the ‘big time’ – the first time we’d managed more than a single top flight season since the early-mid 80s – and we ‘d done it in style.
A seventh placed finish the previous year – more impressive than it sounds, we just ran out of steam after keeping up with the pacesetters for much of the campaign – had been followed by a steady start to the new season, gathering momentum as we went.
A 1-0 home win over Middlesbrough in early December had lifted us to fourth place, and a 4-1 victory at Bradford, courtesy of a Phillips hat-trick on Boxing Day, saw us rise to third.
Arsene Wenger was building a terrific team at the time. Although the invincibles season was still a couple of years off, the building blocks were in place – they’d finished second the previous season, and would do likewise this season too.
We’d taken all three points off the Gunners on the season’s opening day, however, (debutants Stan Varga and Jurgen Macho providing the heroics) and we were in confident mood heading to North London.
However, that confidence dissipated within the opening minutes, one of Arsenal’s star turns – Patrick Viera – heading home from a Robert Pires corner.
It was one-way traffic for much of the first half, and Varga – who’d been so impressive earlier in the season – was having something of a nightmare, unable to deal with Arsenal’s attacking talents.
A combination of poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping from Sorensen kept the score down – and in truth Arsenal could and should have been four or five up by the time fullback Lee Dixon side footed home five minutes before the interval.
Sunderland had been restricted to a solitary Phillips effort during the first half – and you can only imagine the words that were dished out by Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton at half time.
Whatever was said, however, had the desired effect; with Sunderland producing a much more solid display – but the lads were provided with a route back into the game by referee Graham Barber, so often the nemesis of Peter Reid’s team.
The referee, who famously gave Liverpool a penalty at the Stadium of Light for Gary McAllister being fouled closer to the halfway line than the penalty area, was one of the few in the ground to spot a handball in the box by Viera.
Phillips – who had missed a penalty at Bradford on Boxing Day – dispatched the spot kick with force.
Seconds later, the game was almost level – Phillips denied by Manninger before Quinn’s follow up was cleared off the line – while at the other end Henry was again denied by Sorensen.
A much more even second half ensued, but an equaliser still looked unlikely until midfielder Gavin McCann picked the ball up outside the Arsenal box after Viera’s tackle on Rae. McCann curled the ball magnificently past Manninger for an equaliser that on the balance of play was underserved, but spoke volumes about the spirit within the ranks.
We almost snatched the win too: a Phillips drive across the goal just went wide, while at the other end a late Arsenal penalty shout was turned down.
The game finished 2-2 – and by the time the end of January approached, we were sitting proudly as the second best team in the country...
Arsenal 2-2 Sunderland
Goals: Viera 4, Dixon 40, Phillips (pen) 53. McCann 81
Arsenal: Manninger, Dixon, Sylvinho, Viera, Stepanovs, Adams, Ljungberg, Grimandi, Kanu (Parlour 69), Henry (Danilevicius 80), Pires. Subs not used: Lukic, Cole, Vivas.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Gray, McCann, Craddock, Varga, Hutchison, Rae, Quinn (Dichio 55), Phillips, Schwarz. Subs not used. Macho, Williams, Arca, Kilbane.