He’d once been the third most expensive player in the world, he’d played in the European Cup final, two World Cups, earned 62 caps for England and was widely regarded as one of the best wingers of his generation in European football – but, on this day 24 years ago, at the age of 36, Chris Waddle finally got to play for the side he supported as a boy.
I used to watch Sunderland as a kid until about 1975, when I started to play on Saturday afternoons myself. I suppose it’s a bit of an ambition. I always wondered what it would be like to play on the Roker pitch. I had trials there on two or three occasions but it never worked out so I thought my day had gone.
The week leading up to signing on the dotted line at Roker Park had been a bit of a rollercoaster for the Felling-born winger. The transfer could have easily happened the previous season when Sunderland along with several other clubs were attempting to prise him away from Sheffield Wednesday.
Kevin Keegan thought he’d sealed the deal to take him back to St James’ Park in January 1996, only to be told by David Pleat to stump up £1 million for a 35-year-old who would be back-up to an in-form David Ginola. Nine months later, he was handed a free transfer from Hillsborough after just over four years in South Yorkshire and joined Falkirk in the Scottish First Division.
He would only make four appearances north of the border, before Chris Kamara, who was in the hotseat at Bradford City, made him an offer to make a quick return to England.
Waddle immediately began to impress at Valley Parade, not only in the First Division but also in a high profile FA Cup tie at Goodison Park in February 1997, where he lobbed Neville Southall from around 40 yards out.
This alerted a number of clubs, especially those at the wrong end of the Premier League, and especially those who had caught wind that there was potentially a gentlemen’s agreement involved that meant Waddle could leave the West Yorkshire club whenever he liked on a free transfer.
The first club to take the plunge as the transfer deadline loomed large in March 1997 was Nottingham Forest, who after sacking Frank Clark in December, now had Dave Bassett working alongside Stuart Pearce as general manager.
Bradford’s reaction to this move was to threaten Nottingham Forest with reporting them to the FA for making an illegal approach to one of their players. Bassett had been led to believe Waddle could be freed from his contract, which Bantams manager Chris Kamara vehemently denied.
It was a hell of a shock. Usually as a manager you would negotiate with another manager or a chairman or they would come to you and say ‘look, we’re interested in Chris Waddle’
Chris Kamara and Bradford City took a stand against this method of approach from the Premier League side and demanded £500,000 from Forest in order to acquire the services of the former Spurs and England star. This was angrily rejected by Dave Bassett who still claimed that the 36-year-old winger was available on a free transfer.
Things then took a twist when the player himself also decided that he should be available to join whoever he liked on a free transfer. This led to Waddle subsequently calling in sick for the Bantams next fixture at Reading, and while the team bus left without him, he was essentially on strike.
It was at this point that, although Birmingham City were reported to be about to approach Waddle to replace Trevor Francis and take over at St Andrews as player-manager, Peter Reid made his move for his former England colleague.
Unsurprisingly, the value for the now on-strike 36-year-old demanded by Bradford City, was dramatically lowered and the Sunderland manager sealed the deal for a mere £75,000.
It was probably fair to say that reaction was mixed on Wearside to the signing. Most agreed that it certainly wouldn’t hurt our chances of survival, but many thought it was a desperate act.
In a scenario that football seems to throw up with regular occurrence, only days later, Waddle was lining up for Sunderland at Roker Park, a boyhood dream fulfilled, against the side he almost joined, Nottingham Forest.
Whatever the general consensus on the new addition to the squad, the anticipation and intrigue was always high when a big name joined the club, even more so perhaps when the man in question was making an emotional return to the club at the age of 36.
It was clear from the off that Sunderland’s new tactical change was to give the ball to Waddle, and proceed to stand and watch to see what he would do next. He spent much of the game as an orthodox winger, where maybe his slouched frame suggested those heady days were behind him, and the home side struggled to provide him with the ball in any sort of threatening position.
In fact, neither side really threatened their counterpart’s goal at all during the afternoon, and a quick glance at the table before kick-off would do much to explain the nerves. Forest occupied the final relegation position in 18th and looked up to Sunderland who sat 15th, but only three points separated the two sides.
Reid knew that victory would provide vital breathing space, but defeat would drag his side right back into the thick of the battle to survive in the Premier League. Just after the hour mark, the much needed breathing space looked a possibility. A corner in front of the Fulwell End was taken by Waddle and fired towards the penalty spot, where it met Kevin Ball who swept it first time into the net past Mark Crossley.
The lead would last until only four minutes remained of the 90, when Forest were awarded a free-kick just inside their own half. Their intent was obvious as they only left the taker of the free-kick, Stuart Pearce, on the halfway line and every other Forest player pushed on to the edge of the Sunderland box where our nervy defence sat too deep.
A long ball forward from the ex-England international was followed by a couple of rounds of head tennis coming in and out of the 18-yard box, until it fell to Des Lyttle on the volley from the edge of the box who smartly stroked the ball home into the corner past a despairing Lionel Perez.
It would turn out to be a huge result in what ended up being a devastating relegation to see Roker Park off.
Sunderland were clearly in need of someone to put the ball in the back of the net and were subsequently heavily linked with numerous names with less than a week to go before the transfer deadline, with the latest name in the press being Uwe Rosler from Manchester City.
In terms of Chris Waddle in a Sunderland shirt, the stage was set for our final home game of the season against Everton to give us that moment to remember.
Sunderland 1 - 1 Nottingham Forest
(Ball 61’ - Lyttle 86’)
Sunderland: Perez, Hall, Howey, Ord, Kubicki, Gray, Bracewell, Ball, Rae, Waddle, Bridges (Stewart) Substitutes not used: Preece, Eriksson, Kelly, Russell
Nottingham Forest: Crossley, Lyttle, Chettle, Cooper, Pearce, Phillips, Gemmill, Haaland, Woan (Roy), Saunders (Moore), Van Hooijdonk Substitutes not used: Fettis, O’Neil, Lee