They do say that all good things must come to an end, and that was true of our magnificent start to season 1998-99, when a splendid unbeaten run of twenty-four league and cup games was finally halted, albeit perhaps surprisingly/in a rather disappointing manner, by 2-3 v lowly Barnsley, in a First Division clash at The SOL.
Therefore, I guess, someone had to be made to pay for this setback, however slight it may have appeared – and as it turned out, our response couldn’t have been better.
For in the next game, we recorded an emphatic 4-0 win at Bramall Lane v another of the promotion challengers, Sheffield United, whose side that day included a certain Steve Bruce, who actually held the role of player/manager.
Prior to KO, we of course stood top of The First Division, five points clear of second-placed Watford, and with a game in hand. The Blades, meanwhile, lay three places below us and had won their previous two games – while they hadn’t tasted defeat at home since August, when another of The First Division’s fancied sides, Birmingham, returned to The Midlands with a 2-0 win to their credit.
It was certainly a stiff task facing us, however, it was a test we were to pass with flying colours, as United were made to feel the full brunt of our attacking force, even in the absence of our goal-getter-in-chief Kevin Phillips.
For we proceeded to provide a real treat for our travelling faithful, and perhaps at the same time prove that the Barnsley defeat was merely a blip in proceedings, in our rather relentless pursuit of a return to the Premiership.
United kicked off attacking the end where most of our travelling contingent had gathered, and the first real chance came the way of the home side after five minutes, but Petr Katchouro’s effort from just outside the box was well over.
But then we showed how it should be done with our first genuine attack, when a free-kick for a foul on Nicky Summerbee was taken by the winger himself, and he picked out Niall Quinn at the far post, who headed us into an eighth-minute lead.
And it got even better just six minutes later, when we made it 2-0, thanks to a great piece of skill by Michael Bridges.
A cross from Chris Makin picked out the young forward in the box, though he had his back to goal. And although he also had Steve Bruce and Nicky Marker in close attendance, Bridges turned them inside out before clipping the ball over United keeper Simon Tracey. Great stuff!
These early setbacks seemed to visibly shock the home side, and they responded positively. Thomas Sorensen was forced to make two great saves, firstly to parry away a powerful free-kick from Vassilis Borbokis, then to stop a side-footed effort from Ian Hamilton.
Though in between these important saves from our Danish stopper, we could have had a third goal, for when Michael Bridges and Nicky Summerbee combined well, the latter’s cross picked out Allan Johnston, but Magic’s header was just off target.
We continued to call the tune, and after three corners had proved fruitless, before Chris Makin had sent a fierce shot over the top, after having been set up by Michael Bridges, we made it 3-0 in the 36th minute, courtesy of another sublime effort.
A free-kick for a foul on Niall Quinn was chipped forward by Allan Johnston to find Michael Bridges, who carried the ball into the area, before neatly rounding Simon Tracey.
And though he was confronted by two defenders, Bridges still managed to neatly slot the ball across the face of goal, and into the net, much to the delight of the travelling fans.
Game over then, so it seemed, though we continued to attack at every opportunity. And a fierce 30-yard effort from Kevin Ball forced Simon Tracey to pull off a great save, before Michael Bridges, now on a hat-trick, just failed to make contact with a Nicky Summerbee cross.
Then in a somewhat rare United attack, a firm header from Graham Stuart forced a fine save from Thomas Sorensen, but the half-time break came with the score still at 3-0 in our favour, and fans and players alike were left to reflect on an excellent first-half’s work.
Might there be further fireworks to come in the second period?
Well, United then started the second period positively, as they sought to try and claw back the deficit. However, we could well have increased our advantage in the 50th minute, when Michael Bridges and Niall Quinn combined well to set up a chance for Allan Johnston, but he placed his header straight at Simon Tracey.
The home side then suffered a blow, when Graham Stuart had to leave the field with an injury, and having already used their three substitutes, United now had to see out the game with ten men, though they did carve out a great chance when Nicky Henry found himself in a good position, but his shot was well off target.
However, normal service was soon resumed, but in spite of fairly constant pressure, we failed to make any real headway. But then in the 64 minute we were presented with a really great chance to wrap the game up, when Allan Johnston was fouled by Shaun Derry inside the area, the referee having no hesitation in awarding us a spot-kick.
Our regular penalty-taker Martin Scott rather generously offered Michael Bridges the chance to try and complete his hat-trick, but unfortunately, Bridges placed his kick high and wide of Simon Tracey’s goal.
But undeterred, we maintained the pressure, and Niall Quinn set up a great chance for Michael Bridges to once again complete his treble, but the latter’s fierce effort was well saved by Simon Tracey. Shaun Derry was then narrowly off-target in a somewhat rare home attack, but shortly afterward we made it 4-0.
Kevin Ball played in Chris Makin, who sent in a tremendous effort from just outside the area which Simon Tracey could only parry, and the loose ball fell kindly for Niall Quinn to fire home his second goal of the game, much to the delight of the travelling Sunderland fans behind the goal.
The game was now very much a lost cause for United, though they proceeded to put us under a fair bit of pressure, in their bid to add a bit of respect to the scoreline. This however, came to nothing, and we nearly added a fifth goal near the end, when Lee Clark picked out Michael Bridges with a long ball down the left, Bridges then beat a defender before cutting the ball back for Danny Dichio, whose effort brought a great save from Simon Tracey.
4-0 then, a scoreline which hardly flattered us, after a fine afternoon’s work. We’d got the Barnsley setback out of our system in the best possible way, and versus one of our chief promotion rivals into the bargain.
We remained five points clear at the top of The First Division, and this great result at Bramall Lane perhaps illustrated that the Barnsley result had just been a blip in proceedings.
It also illustrated the resilience which Peter Reid had instilled into his squad, and that our First Division promotion/Championship bid was very much back on course.
It had indeed been a great day, just one of many, in what would eventually turn out to be a phenomenal 1998-99 campaign.
And, as for Steve Bruce, that was the end of what was a top-class playing career – at the age of 38, he decided that was enough, and concentrated on management.
Bridges later told Roker Report: “Steve Bruce actually came up to me after the game and told me that he thought he should retire as I’d totally showed him up, and wished me all the best for the rest of my career.”