If we’re being honest, the early-mid 90s was a bit of a crap time to be a Sunderland fan.
Not only were we bumming around the mid-to-lower end of the second tier, the mags were getting their backsides kissed by all and sundry. We were constantly being told how they were ‘everyone’s second favourite team’. Thanks, BSKYB. And then there was the gravy stained lot up the road, too. ‘Our rivals are Manchester United now.’ And that’s not to mention John Hall’s attempts to create the ‘Barcelona of the north’.
When we went up under Reidy the first time around, we put a valiant fight up against them but, in truth, we all knew it’d take something pretty spectacular to get the better of them. We had Paul Stewart and Steve Agnew, they had Alan Shearer and David Ginola.
A single goal defeat in the home derby was a poor way to end Roker Park’s derby days, although given we’d not beaten them at home since 1980 the odds were against us. The 1-1 draw at St James’ promised more for a while.
The second promotion under Reid, however, was different. We were a real team. One with goals, guile and a touch of class. One that could mix it while also playing football.
In short, we were the real deal.
The fifth game of our season saw us travel north for a rain-soaked midweek clash. Famously, Ruud Gullit signed his own death warrant when he dared to leave Shearer on the bench, and was jettisoned shortly after Kevin Phillips had chipped the ball over the aging Tommy Wright from a near-impossible angle.
After the Dutchman was ran out of town, he was replaced by 67-year-old Sacriston-born Bobby Robson, who had enjoyed something of a managerial renaissance after his success in Italia 90 almost a decade earlier.
So it was that Robson brought his revitalised team to Sunderland as we looked to mark the Stadium of Light’s first-ever derby with our first home win against them for 20 years.
Despite our fine form in the closing months of 1999, our post-Christmas form had been poor, with four defeats and a draw coming from five league games, and a cup defeat to Tranmere thrown in for good measure.
And it seemed the team was still suffering from something – maybe a lack of confidence, perhaps too much sense of occasion as they struggled to get close to a vibrant Newcastle side.
Duncan Ferguson forced a good save from Sorensen, before Frenchman Didier Domi found himself free on the right-hand side of our box. He wasted no time in shooting towards goal and, with the aid of a big deflection from Niall Quinn, somehow playing centre half, put Newcastle into an early lead.
Ten minutes or so later things went from bad to worse – centre half Helder headed Dyer’s free kick past Tommy, and the biggest crowd the Stadium of Light had seen so far were – mostly – left stunned.
Fortunately, one person who wasn’t suffering the effects of that sucker-punch was Super Kevin Phillips.
He’d been a revelation so far that season, and of course, would go on to win the golden boot. Seconds after Helder’s goal, he showed just why.
A long free kick was flicked on telepathically by Quinn, and Phillips pounced to equalise immediately, steering the ball through the legs of Steve Harper, who for once was actually playing a game of football.
From there, the game was a glorious end to end encounter, with both teams going close on more than one occasion. Ferguson had another effort cleared off the line, while Harper’s fine save prevented Kilbane from equalising before half time. Harper also clawed out a long-range effort from Chris Makin that looked destined for the back of the net.
It was Makin who came close again after half time, Harper denying the full back once more, however it wasn’t until the closing stages that Sunderland finally got the goal we deserved, Phillips tapping home after good work by Kilbane. Phillips looked offside, it mattered not one jot, as he took off to the north east corner – and the Stadium of Light roared in appreciation.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Craddock, Butler, Gray, Summerbee (Reddy 75), McCann, Schwarz, Kilbane, Quinn, Phillips. Subs not used: Marriott, Holloway, Roy, Rae.
Newcastle: Harper, Barton, Helder, Dabizas, Pistone (Hughes 36), Dyer, Lee (Gavilan 88), Speed, Domi (Gallacher 88), Shearer, Ferguson. Subs not used: Given, Fumaca.