As the 1998-99 season edged towards its half-way stage, things were looking very encouraging from a Sunderland perspective.
For, following a comfortable 2-0 win at Port Vale, we stood top of the First Division, five points clear of second-placed Ipswich, now unbeaten in 18 league games.
And, to spice things up, a promising League (Worthington) Cup run was also taking place, for after wins against York City, Chester City and Grimsby Town, we’d then accounted for one of Peter Reid’s old clubs, Everton, albeit after AET/penalties at Goodison Park.
We looked set then, to put the play off disappointment of season 1997-98 well behind us, in the best possible manner.
All things considered then, our next engagement, in the First Division at home to Barnsley, shouldn’t have, on paper at least, posed too many problems.
The Tykes, having been relegated from The Premier League at the end of the previous season, after just one season “upstairs”/their only-ever taste of life at the top, were now struggling in the lower reaches of The First Division.
Surely then, another three points for us seemed a virtual formality?
Unfortunately however, Barnsley, managed by former Boro and Mags midfielder John Hendrie, had seemingly not read the script, as they proceeded to record surely one of the surprise results of season 1998-99, certainly in The First Division.
But, in all truth, we did contribute to our own downfall.
So on an overcast November afternoon, in front of another bumper/expectant home gate, this time just over 40,000, and with the floodlights on from the start, we began attacking the South Stand.
And we could have taken an early lead, when Michael Bridges beat Barnsley keeper Tony Bullock to a through ball and flicked the ball goalwards but failed to net.
Danny Dichio then sent in a header, but sadly lacking in power, though Bullock still had to scramble back to make a save.
We maintained our early pressure, and had a great chance to take the lead just short of the quarter-hour mark. A rather wayward backpass from Darren Barnard put his side in trouble, but fortunately for the visitors, Bullock was alert to the danger, and intercepted the ball just ahead of Dichio, who seemed a certain scorer.
Then the Barnsley keeper was unable to take a Bridges cross cleanly when challenged by Dichio, and the ball broke loose to Nicky Summerbee, who fired the ball goalwards, only for Chris Morgan to come to the rescue by clearing off the line.
It had been very much one-way traffic up until now, and though Barnsley were proving to be a “tough nut to crack”, it seemed that we might make a well-deserved breakthrough just short of the half-hour mark. A right-wing corner picked out Andy Melville, who swivelled and sent a powerful effort goalwards, only for Bullock to save on the line, before Barnard cleared.
Then almost immediately, and completely against the run of play, Barnsley grabbed the lead, though it was in all truth down to a bit of a “comedy of errors” on our part.
A long ball forward into our half seemed harmless enough, when Darren Williams left the ball, presumably thinking that Thomas Sorensen, who’d advanced towards the edge of his area, would then come out to clear downfield.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be a breakdown in communication between keeper and defender, and this lapse proved fatal, as Ashley Ward took full advantage, slotting the ball into an empty net, in spite of a rather determined challenge on the part of Williams to try and retrieve the situation.
A bit of a “bolt from the blue” then, and it could have been a lot worse shortly afterwards, when Barnsley were awarded a penalty, after Chris Makin brought down Bruce Dyer inside the area.
Ward was entrusted with the spot-kick, but we gained a reprieve when he blasted the ball over the bar into The North Stand. But that was the least of Ward’s problems, for just two minutes hence, the Barnsley man was shown the red card, after he’d appeared to have stamped on Darren Williams, following the award of a free-kick to the visitors, which thankfully proved fruitless.
The rest of the first-half saw a more or less non-stop assault on the Barnsley goal, as we sought an equaliser. And a fierce effort from Kevin Ball was knocked up into the air by Bullock, before Sean McClare then cleared off the line, then Melville struck an upright, with Bullock well beaten.
0-1 then at the break, rather unjust in view of the balance of play so far, but hardly an irretrievable scoreline.
However, disaster struck just a minute into the second period, when Barnsley edged further ahead.
And, as with their first goal, it was down to slackness on our part.
Ex-mag Mattie Appleby played a long, hopeful ball into our half, which seemed to pose no real problem for Williams. Unfortunately, however, he sliced his attempted clearance, and the ball dropped rather invitingly for the lurking Dyer, who advanced on goal, before rather comprehensively beating Sorensen.
A bit of a body-blow then, but we battled back gamely, and Ball tested Bullock with a powerful long-range effort. But further pressure brought no reward, so it was perhaps no real surprise when just short of the hour-mark, Peter Reid sent on Niall Quinn in place of Williams, as we went with three up front, in a bid to try and retrieve the game.
And indeed, this rather bold move seemed to pay dividends, for further pressure on our part finally paid off in the 62nd minute, when Dichio was fouled inside the area. Martin Scott then converted the resulting spot-kick, to hand us a lifeline.
This seemed to breathe fresh life/purpose into us, and Quinn was only just off-target with a diving header. Then after Barnard had gone close for Barnsley, in what had been their only real attack of the second-half so far, The Stadium Of Light erupted, when we drew level in the 72nd minute.
Allan Johnston and Scott combined well on the left, and the left-back’s subsequent cross into the box seemed to catch Bullock in two minds. Fortunately Quinn was rather more decisive, and he looped a header over Bullock into the back of the net, to send the home support wild with delight. Game on.
We continued to pour forward in search of a possible winner, and Dichio came close, after being set up by a teasing cross by Summerbee. But then eight minutes from time, disaster struck again, when Barnsley edged ahead once more, courtesy of their second penalty of the game, after Ball was adjudged to have fouled McClare inside the box.
Barnard took the kick, and sent Sorensen the wrong way to restore his side’s lead, much to the delight of the travelling Barnsley contingent in The South Stand.
Could we then bounce back again? Sadly not, for in spite of throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at Barnsley in what time remained, the visitors held out for a welcome, if rather surprise win.
They say that all good things must come to an end, and while our proud and lengthy unbeaten start to season 1998-99 surely had to have ended at some point, the manner in which it had done so was rather disappointing to say the least.
However, we soon got the Barnsley setback out of our system in the best possible way, with an emphatic 4-0 win the following week at another of the promotion challengers, Sheffield United – at the time managed by a certain Steve Bruce.
And, as it turned out, the Barnsley defeat, although a shock at the time, eventually turned out to be a mere blip on proceedings – it was our sole home reverse in the league in the whole of 1998-99.
For it was also in fact, one of only three defeats suffered in the league in the whole of the campaign, as we won the First Division Championship by the proverbial country mile.
And rather ironically, we clinched the title in the return fixture v The Tykes, at Oakwell in mid-April, thanks to a 3-1 win.
Revenge was certainly sweet!