It was the last season at Roker Park, four fixtures remained of our first season in the Premier League, we were in trouble at the wrong end of the table on the back of one win in 12, and our next fixture was at relegation rivals Middlesbrough.
Even as we sat in 11th place in late January, it always seemed inevitable it would have this sort of ending to our life at Roker Park. Would we have been disappointed if it wasn’t a nail biting ending for he old place? Maybe, although in hindsight in probably took years off me.
As April was drawing to a close, our form so far in 1997 was dire. Our only victories of the calendar year so far came maybe ironically against the side that were top in Manchester United and Arsenal, who were chasing them down from 3rd place in the Premier League. Otherwise, another four draws were helping us keep afloat, including an impressive performance at St James’ Park in our last fixture on the road.
Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough were right in the thick of the relegation dogfight alongside us, but their task had been made more difficult due to events over the festive period and early in the new year.
The Teesiders had claimed that they were unable to fulfill their fixture on the 21st December away to Blackburn Rovers due to the number of players they had on the injury list. The claim was that their only option was to play young players from the youth setup, most of whom had never played a senior game.
For whatever reason they thought they had the blessing of the Premier League to postpone the fixture and reschedule, but this wasn’t the case, and on the 14th January it was decided that Middlesbrough should be docked three points.
This meant that instead of sitting level on point with Coventry in 15th place in the Premier League, they were now one point and one place below Sunderland in 19th, only above Nottingham Forest who were rock bottom.
This game was huge. If either side came away with all three points, it would no doubt be a huge boost in providing hope with only three games remaining of staying in the Premier League, and for Sunderland, to start life at a new home as a top flight club.
However, it wasn’t easy for us to go into the fixture with any sort of confidence. On top of the poor form since the turn of the year, we boasted the second worst away record in the Premier League (only Middlesbrough were worse on the road) where we had only recorded 2 victories in the 17 fixtures on our travels to that point.
With that in mind, Peter Reid decided to be cautious and go not only with Paul Stewart as the lone striker, but decided to hand Darren Williams only his seventh start for Sunderland, with the specific job of sticking to Middlesbrough’s Brazilian superstar Juninho like glue with a man-marking job.
There was one problem with this tactic, which was realised when the two sides were announced - Juninho was only on the bench for Middlesbrough.
Bryan Robson had decided to go with his own tough tacklers in the form of Phil Stamp, Robbie Mustoe and Emerson as three of his midfield four.
Darren Williams was born in Middlesbrough and had started his career at York City, where he only made 20 appearances before Peter Reid snapped him up for a bargain price of £50,000 in October 1996. It was clear that the then 19-year-old had potential in his early games for the club, especially in the victory over Arsenal in January on his full debut.
The manager’s personalities and the team line-ups they put out dictated what type of game it would be, it was a blood and guts encounter that Middlesbrough should have taken the lead in.
Robbie Mustoe flighted a long pass from deep inside his own half in behind the Sunderland back four for Danish international Mikkel Beck to run clear in on goal. As he was held up by the ball bouncing and bobbling on the dry pitch, he managed to get off a left foot shot that beat Lionel Perez in the Sunderland goal, but thankfully came back off the post.
Then, just before half-time we won a free-kick on our right hand side of the Middlesbrough penalty area. It just so happened we had just acquired one of the country’s best dead ball specialists. Although Chris Waddle was 36-years-old, he was already providing the assists for Sunderland after joining from Bradford City for £75,000 just before the transfer deadline.
As he readied to step up with his wand of a left foot, Williams was on his toes at the back post and just as he began his run-up darted to the front in behind Emerson, where Waddle had planted a peach of a ball at the front post just begging to be nodded in.
Up stepped Williams to provide the perfect glance to give Ben Roberts no chance and Sunderland all three points with the help of some desperate defending and nerve-jangling finally moments.
We eventually did get relegated, with Boro, and being Middlesbrough born he took some stick for it, but what a day and what a moment.
Oh... and Juninho did eventually get on just after the hour mark - maybe it was to man-mark Darren Williams - who knows and frankly who cares?.
Middlesbrough: Roberts, Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte, Mustoe, Emerson, Stamp, Moore (Hignett (Juninho)), Beck, Ravanelli Substitutes not used: Walsh, Kinder, Blackmore
Sunderland: Perez, Hall, Howey, Ord, Gary, Johnston (Rae), Williams, Ball, Bracewell, Waddle (Russell), Stewart Substitutes not used: Woods, Eriksson, Quinn