Sunderland v Manchester United, a fixture which has more often than not been guaranteed to set the pulses racing. There have been some stirring battles over the years between ourselves and the men from Old Trafford, I seem to recall that epic 3-2 home win in November 1984, Clive Walker’s first-half hat-trick etc., and the 2-1 wins in September 1990 (our first win back in The First Division) & March 1997, the latter although a bit unlikely at the time, still gave us hope that we’d retain our Premiership status. Then in December 1999, we came all so close to a memorable home win when United visited The SOL for the first time ever. For having gone two up early on through messrs McCann and Quinn, we were pegged back by goals from our future gaffer Roy Keane, and a deflected late equalizer by future Mag Nicky Butt, following the award of a rather contentious free-kick.
And the next home meeting with United, in January 2001, was an eagerly-anticipated top-of-the-table encounter. For prior to kick off, The Red Devils perhaps not too surprisingly stood top of The Premiership, twelve points clear, and looking more or less certain to retain their title crown. As for us, we lay two places behind our visitors in third place, and looking good for a place in Europe, while a promising FA Cup run was also taking shape.
But back to the United fixture, and perhaps not surprisingly it attracted a new record gate for The SOL, 48,260. And, while the previous season’s meeting had been slightly controversial due to United’s late leveller, unfortunately this time round there was to be more controversy, which undoubtedly spoiled what was otherwise a great occasion.
The first-half was a fairly even affair, with the best chances for United falling to Teddy Sheringham, who back-heeled a Gary Neville cross across the face of goal, and David Beckham, whose dangerous free-kick produced a fine save from Thomas Sorensen. As for ourselves, Gavin McCann and Don Hutchison tended to pull the strings in midfield, and our best chances of the half perhaps fell to Kevin Phillips, who fired over the top from an acute angle, and Niall Quinn, who just failed to make contact in front of goal with a free-kick from Michael Gray.
But mid-way through the first-half, came the first moment of controversy when United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez dropped a cross from Gray. Quinn, in attempting to take advantage, appeared to be clearly manhandled off the ball by United defender Jaap Stam. Surely a clear-cut penalty, yet referee Graham Poll, who was to be at the centre of more controversy during the evening, instead awarded Alex Ferguson’s side a free-kick, presumably having felt that Quinn had instead fouled Stam. So half-time came with the scoreline goalless, but there’d be some second-half fireworks to come, and not necessarily in terms of goals.
And it all started just a minute into the second period, when United edged ahead, in rather dubious circumstances. Andy Cole appeared to clearly handle in the build-up to the goal, yet Graham Poll, who was positioned a relatively short distance away, rather inexplicably, seemed to miss the rather obvious offence completely, and allowed play to continue. And this was to prove a rather costly decision (or rather non-decision), for when Jody Craddock miscued an attempted clearance, Cole took full advantage, and chipped the ball over Sorensen into the net, to send the travelling United fans wild with delight, even though United’s advantage was somewhat unjust.
Not surprisingly, this controversial setback prompted protests on our part, not to mention a lot of booing from the crowed, in the direction of the man in the middle. And to make things worse, we then found ourselves reduced to ten men, when Michael Gray received a red card, after apparently being over-zealous with his opinions.
The temperature then began to boil over, with tempers beginning to spiral out of control, the immediate result being that we then soon found ourselves further reduced in ranks, when Alex Rae and Andy Cole both saw red following a bad tempered clash in front of the South Stand. Rae had taken exception to Cole’s challenge on Sorensen as the latter had collected a left-wing centre at the second attempt.
So it now appeared to be more or less mission impossible almost, with Graham Poll hardly having made himself popular with the home fans. But we bravely stuck to our task, and Don Hutchison, after having been set up by Kevin Kilbane, saw his shot blocked by Barthez. Phillips then volleyed just wide, before heading over right at the death, after a Stan Varga free-kick had been cleared for a corner.
Matters were also brightened up by the appearance of a female streaker on the pitch late on, but joking aside, we were eventually left to reflect on our first home defeat in 2000-01, though it was the rather controversial manner in which it came about, that doubtless rankled with manager, players and fans alike. For who knows how the game may have panned out had United’s controversial winner been ruled out?
And unfortunately, there’d be more controversy to come within a rather short space of time/in the next two games at the SOL. Firstly, Liverpool netted a dubious equaliser, following a rather debatable penalty award, before in the next home fixture, we were denied what seemed a clear-cut late winner against Aston Villa, when Villa keeper David James had appeared to have been fouled by one of his own players, as opposed to one of ours.
And these rather controversially lost points proved rather costly in the final analysis, as we eventually missed out on European qualification by a rather narrow margin. Such can be the injustice, at times, of the game of football...