The 1995-96 title-winning season was one of the best promotion campaigns in living memory for a multitude of reasons, but mainly because we didn’t expect it.
After saving us from relegation to the third tier with seven games remaining, we thought Peter Reid might improve things a bit, but not many thought for a second we’d go on to win the title.
Predictably, as a result of the promotion being out of the blue, few gave us a chance of survival in the Premier League in our final season at Roker Park. This become more likely as Reid lost his two big-name summer signings, Tony Coton and Niall Quinn, early in the season through injury.
Despite being up against it from the off, and with the move to a new stadium drawing valuable funds from the transfer kitty, as well as the ever frustrating injury problems, Sunderland were more than holding their own in the Premier League.
At the end of January we sat 11th in the comfort of mid-table, but as the 8th March arrived and Roker Park was preparing for the last ever visit of Manchester United, Reid’s side had been sucked back into a relegation battle on the back of four straight defeats.
Up until the festive season our form had been good, but up to the point of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side visit to Wearside, Sunderland had only one victory so far in 1997 that had come courtesy of a Tony Adams own goal to claim all three points against Arsenal at Roker.
Four days prior to the league leaders arriving at Roker, Sunderland had been dealt a demoralising blow at home to Gerry Francis’ Tottenham Hotspur. Steffen Iversen had scored twice in the first ten minutes to put the game out of Sunderland’s reach almost before it had begun. A third goal from Allan Nielsen before the half hour mark and Iversen completing his hattrick with half an hour still remaining, caused audible unrest on the terraces in the old ground’s final year.
Manchester United’s preparation for the fixture however, couldn’t have been any more different. Twenty-four hours after Sunderland’s capitulation against Spurs, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side entertained Porto in the Champions League quarter-final first leg at Old Trafford. A convincing 4-0 win would mean that they could visit Wearside safe in the knowledge they had one foot already in the semi-final.
Despite the build up for either side, it was one of those days at Roker Park when there was a feeling something special was possible. The first half didn’t follow the form guide and and was evenly matched – Sunderland’s best moments were dealt with efficiently by Schmeichel whilst Beckham and Poborsky threatened for the away side, but it remained goalless at the interval.
At the beginning of the second half Sunderland had to survive a couple of dangerous moments, but seven minutes into the half as we attacked the Fulwell End, Peter Schmeichel spilled a Gareth Hall cross from the right to the feet of Michael Gray about six yards out, who managed to poke the ball home to give the home side the lead to give Roker Park one of its last big moments.
Both sides threatened to grab the all-important second goal, with Lionel Perez defiantly denying the away side an equaliser and John Mullin going close to doubling the lead – until he finally did. With about 15 minutes remaining a ball over the top of David May in the United rear guard provided the chance for Mullin to face Schmeichel in the United goal, which he took full advantage of by slotting in home.
In true Sunderland fashion, our cushion only lasted three minutes. A David Beckham free-kick rebounded off an unfortunate Andy Melville and into the back of the net to bring the deficit back to one and the biting of fingernails commenced once again on the terraces.
The final 12 minutes were typical when it came to endings at Roker Park, but on this occasion we took all three points. It would turn out to be the penultimate competitive victory at Roker Park and the final whistle was greeted with wild celebrations as we took a step closer to survival.
Sunderland: Perez, Hall, Ord, Melville, Kubicki, Kelly, Bracewell (Williams), Ball, Gray, Mullin, Bridges (Russell) Substitutes not used: Preece, Howey, Eriksson
Manchester United: Schmeichel, Neville, May, Johnson, Irwin, Beckham, P. Neville, McClair, Poborsky (Solskjaer), Cruyff (Cole), Cantona Substitutes not used: Van Der Gouw, Casper, Giggs