We began season 1998-99 in a steady if slightly unspectacular manner, though also showing no apparent ‘side effects’, after having missed out rather narrowly/agonisingly on an immediate return to the Premiership at the end of season 1997-98.
Our opening four games produced three wins. On the first day of the season, we beat QPR (which was recompense for Rangers having taken two points from us near the end of the previous season, which had proved rather costly in the final analysis), while we’d also comfortably disposed of Second Division York by an aggregate of 5-0, over two legs in the first round of The Worthington Cup.
In our first away fixture of the season, we’d taken a point from a 1-1 draw at Swindon, so the early signs were quite encouraging, as we sought to make up for the ultimate disappointment of the previous campaign.
However, the aforementioned home league victory, although very welcome, as it got us off the winning mark for 1998-99, had been achieved by a narrow 1-0 margin and courtesy of a second-half penalty from our ‘goalscoring machine’, Kevin Phillips.
But in the following home league fixture versus Tranmere, a side who’d often stifled us in the past, certainly on their own patch, we were to lay on a real treat for the home faithful.
Tranmere, whose side included our former striker Craig Russell, had been rather badly hit by injuries and suspensions, but we were to show John Aldridge’s side no mercy, as we proceeded to perhaps demonstrate that we meant business in 1998-99.
Attacking the South Stand in the first half, we started in positive fashion and were rewarded with a goal just past the quarter-hour mark, when a rather swift/neat move down the left culminated with Danny Dichio picking out Kevin Phillips, who easily beat Rovers keeper Steve Simonsen from close range.
The floodgates had opened.
We maintained the pressure, with our wide men Mickey Gray, Allan Johnston and Nicky Summerbee in particular causing no end of problems for Rovers, with attack after attack down the flanks.
But the second goal which we’d been threatening didn’t arrive until the stroke of half-time when a perfectly flighted free-kick from Summerbee was met by Dicho, who become goal provider turned goalscorer when he headed home powerfully to extend our advantage. 2-0 then at the break, a scoreline which perhaps flattered Rovers somewhat, in view of the balance of play so far, and there’d be more torment to come for our rather beleaguered visitors.
And the home crowd didn’t have too long to wait for a further goal, because just three minutes after the break, we made it 3-0.
Following a throw-in on the right, Nicky Summerbee showed a good touch before crossing to find John Mullin, who gleefully prodded the ball home, much to the delight of the home crowd.
Tranmere in all truth weren’t really at the races, and serious calls upon Thomas Sorensen and his defence were few and far between. Indeed, It was now more or less one-way traffic towards the Rovers goal, as we threatened to increase our lead at will. And while we had further chances to add to our goal tally, we had to wait until a ten-minute spell near the end, before we put the cherry on top of the cake, as it were.
Allan Johnston crossed into the visitors' penalty area from the left, and Martin Smith, on as a substitute for Kevin Phillips, helped the ball onto Danny Dichio at the far post, who looped a header over Steve Simonsen into the net for his second goal of the afternoon. Great stuff!
And it got even better six minutes from time, when Mickey Gray and Allan Johnston combined well on the left, and the former’s cross was met by Paul Butler, who powered a header past the helpless Simonsen, to cap a fine afternoon’s work.
5-0 then, no doubt poor Rovers were very much relieved when the ordeal finally ended, but it had been a great afternoon’s entertainment for the crowd of just over 34,000 (Rovers fans excepted of course!).
This fine win was perhaps a sign of what was to come during the remainder of season 1998-99, when we’d proceed to play some truly scintillating stuff, scoring goals for fun at times, and chalking up some great wins.
Just three days hence, in fact, came another treat, when we hosted Graham Taylor’s newly-promoted Watford side, who were making their first-ever visit to The SOL. The game was a form of early-season six-pointer, for, before KO, The Hornets, who like ourselves had made a promising start to the new season, stood in third place in, while we were three places below.
But despite falling behind to an early goal, we turned the tables to end up 4-1 winners, and as a result, now topped The First Division table, a position we retained after a 2-0 win at another fancied side, Ipswich (which was also revenge for our rather costly 0-2 defeat in the previous season’s corresponding fixture), in our final outing of August. We definitely now seemed up and running!
Tranmere did gain revenge of sorts for Their SOL humiliation, when they beat us 1-0 in the return fixture on Boxing Day, as our Prenton Park hoodoo continued, for this meant we’d now lost seven times in eight league/cup visits to that particular part of Merseyside.
But this proved to be merely a blip of sorts, and as it eventually turned out, just one of three league defeats suffered by us in the whole of season 1998-99, the others being v Barnsley (who ended our proud unbeaten start to the season of twenty-four league and cup games) and Watford (who thus gained revenge for their rather heavy defeat at The SOL), as we proceeded to win the First Division by the proverbial country mile. I
t was indeed a great time to be a Sunderland fan, let’s hope a return to similar times is not too far away ….