We’d lost only twice in the final 19 games of the season and in the end, we were one measly point short. In our inaugural season at the Stadium of Light, we managed to secure 90 points in our bid to bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt, scoring 86 goals on the way.
We were 12th in the Nationwide Football League Division One in mid-November on the back of a run of 2 wins in 9 games, but the return of Niall Quinn from injury and the introduction of the like of Jody Craddock, Darren Williams and Darren Holloway in the back four, breathed a new lease of life back into the side.
An incredible run followed that included only 3 defeats after beating Portsmouth 4-1 at Fratton Park on November 15th until the end of the season. We’d managed to force our way into the top two between Dave Bassett’s Nottingham Forest and Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough, where the Teessiders had in fact, done the double over us that season.
A shocking April however, meant we’d have to do it the hard way. Two draws over the Easter weekend, first at home to Queens Park Rangers then away to West Bromwich Albion, managed by former Sunderland boss Denis Smith, and then a defeat at Portman Road resulted in a third appearance for the Lads in the Football League play-offs.
In keeping with tradition, we were facing the side that had finished 6th - Steve Thompson’s Sheffield United, who had managed to sneak in on goal difference after finishing on the same points as Birmingham City.
They had seemingly done all they can to avoid the play-offs after picking up one point from their final four fixtures, which was maybe understandable when you recall the season before they were beaten at Wembley by Crystal Palace with the last kick of the game.
So, taking into account the fact we finished 16 points ahead of them in the final league table, and looking at the form of the two sides, it would be a formality, right? Wrong.
Peter Reid went into the first leg at Bramall Lane without half of his prolific partnership up top, as Niall Quinn would miss out with a hamstring strain which, clearly, was a blow. The Republic of Ireland international had been sensational since his return in November when he came off the bench to a standing ovation against Nottingham Forest at the Stadium of Light.
He proceeded to not only become an unbelievable provider of opportunities for Kevin Phillips, but it’s easy to forget that he finished the regulation season on 14 goals, having missed the first three and a half months of the season.
I was in attendance that day, and as we did on so many occasions in the second half of that season, I felt we would be too strong for Sheffield United, but at the same time, we’d shown that at times we could have a weakness when we were put under pressure. The Queens Park Rangers effect - Mike Sheron haunting our thoughts - and however confident we felt, there was always that niggle at the back of our minds.
The sun was was out, and as the game started, United put us under pressure from the off. I have to say, my memories of that day were of a packed Bramall Lane. The home crowd pushed their team on, and it was obvious from the first kick that they were up for the challenge.
However, and from memory against the run of play, we took the lead after around 17 minutes - through a left foot volley from the edge of the box by none other than our skipper Kevin Ball - just let that one sink in for a moment. If you don’t believe me, then go see the footage for yourself. There was some debate in the away end if the announcer had called it wrong or someone else was captain for the day.
We took the lead into the interval, and the longer the second half went on, the more the home crowd got behind their side and just before the hour they got their reward. Our Achilles heel for a lot of this season had been crosses into the box and this was no different. A basic ball in from a corner that criminally made contact with the ground in our own six-yard box, was turned in by Marcelo.
Lionel Perez was a fantastic shot-stopper as he proved on countless occasions, especially in the second leg, but on crosses he was lost.
With 15 minutes remaining, a fairly innocuous challenge by Jody Craddock resulted in a free-kick to the Blades just a few yards from the angle of the 18-yard box. As Vassilis Borbokis stepped up, it looked like an angle where shooting wasn’t really an option and we would see a ball played into the box.
From the stand behind the opposite goal where I was housed with the rest of the away following, I saw him make contact and as I was expecting the ball to drop somewhere inside the area, it didn’t. It continued to travel and arc, all the way over the top of Perez and into the far corner.
I couldn’t really see how he’d managed to score in that part of the goal from where Borbokis had struck the shot, and even when I watch the footage back I’m still not sure how it went in.
Sheffield United finished with that 2-1 lead to take into the second leg, and I was pretty gutted, realising there was a chance we could blow it, but with defiant confidence knowing that we had goals in us to turn it around.
Looking back, I’m glad Borbokis did what he did, as it led to one of the best footballing experiences of my life - the second leg.
Sheffield United: Tracey, Borbokis, Sandford, Holdsworth, Quinn, Devlin, Ford, Marker, Hamilton, Saunders, Taylor (Marcelo) Substitutes not used: Dellas, Morris
Sunderland: Perez, Holloway (Rae), Craddock, Williams, Makin (Ord), Summerbee, Clark, Ball, Johnston, Dichio, Phillips Substitutes not used: Bridges