Oh, early spring 1998; what a time to be a Sunderland fan. We had a brand spanking new stadium, an inspirational manager, a wonderfully exciting squad of talented players, and a prime time TV series on BBC One about our noble attempt to cling on to our place in the Premier League the previous season. Things were looking up on Wearside, and people were starting to sit up and pay attention to the potential of the club.
With a win, free-scoring Sunderland had the opportunity to replace Middlesbrough, whose promotion bid had stalled after conceding nine goals in two games, in the second automatic promotion spot in Division 1. Peter Reid’s men came into the Saturday afternoon fixture fresh from an impressive three-nil away win in midweek at Nottingham Forest, which saw Alex Rae, Allan Johnston and Kevin Phillips all get on the scoresheet. So optimism was in the air amongst Sunderland fans as Stockport County came to town for the first time in their 108 year history.
As for the Hatters, they were having their best season on record, and with ex-Sunderland flop Brett Angel actually banging in the goals, were not expected to be a pushover by any means, having thrashed Reading 5-1 in their previous game.
As it turned out, the crowd of 29,009 at the Stadium of Light were to witness a virtuoso display by Niall Quinn, one which cemented the deep emotional bond between Sunderland fans and the legendary Irish striker that endures to this day. Quinny would provide the Stadium of Light with its first ever hat-trick by a Sunderland player in a 21 minute flurry either side of half time then limp off to a standing ovation.
The scoring didn’t start until 42 minutes, when Quinn bagged his first, before the pivotal moment in the game came. A minute after half time, Stockport suffered a huge blow to any thoughts they might have had of getting back into it, when sweeper Tony Dinning suffer horrendous broken leg following a tackle from non other than Mr Kevin Ball, and from that point onwards Sunderland took control.
Lee Clark was running the show in the middle of the park and our dominance led Quinn to net again, putting the Lads two-nil up on 54 minutes. But Brett Angel, who would go on to score 18 for Stockport that campagin, pulled one back nine minutes later to keep the game alive.
However, the Dubliner wasn’t going to let the momentum get away from the home side, completing only his second career hat-trick and making club history with a close-range header moments after the restart. It was now 3-1 but, typically for Sunderland in this period, they didn’t hold back on the opposition, with Johnston and Summerbee terrorising the Stockport defence time and again.
The onslaught from the Sunderland players on the pitch was met with roars from the crowd, which were only halted when Quinn went down with an ankle injury in the seventieth minute and, as he limped to the sideline, there was obvious concern mixed in with the adulation from the crowd as he had been plagued by injuries since his arrival at the club.
The result was rounded off with by Phillips grabbing a fourth on 84, minutes, but the day was all about the big number nine. After the final whistle, as the crowds went home with dreams of an immediate return to the Premier League seemingly becoming reality, both managers where fulsome in their praise for Quinn. Stockport’s Gary Megson told the press:
Niall Quinn has always been a handful and they play to his strengths. He is a top international playing in the first division. He was on fire, and like Lee Clark is a Premiership player. Sunderland have Premiership qualities and have added to the squad since they came down last season.
The Sunderland boss, Reid, had only good things to say about the club's record signing:
Everybody knows how highly I rate Niall and I am delighted for him. He struggled with injuries when he first came here but he has proved what he can do and I am delighted that he as got his rewards.
We know we have to keep churning it out until the end of the season - I just wish it was May now.
Thankfully, the knock to Quinn’s ankle didn’t turn out to be too serious in the end. We all know what actually happened in May, with ‘Boro eventually pipping us to second place and the heartbreak at Wembley, but we also know that without that season nothing that was subsequently achieved would have been possible.
This game, of which, frustratingly, I could find no footage online, was a turning point when we fans truly saw Quinny’s quality shine through, and perhaps it was the moment he became a true Sunderland hero for all time.
Sunderland: Perez, Holloway, Gray, Clark, Craddock, Williams, Summerbee, Ball, Quinn (Dichio), Phillips, Johnston
Stockport County: Nixon, Connolly, Searle, Dinning (Phillips), Flynn, McIntosh, Gannon, Cook, Angell, Grant (Mutch), Byrne