Eight weeks on from our record-breaking, title-winning campaign of 1998-99 coming to an end, Peter Reid was preparing for the club’s first experience of Premier League football at the Stadium of Light.
Despite only conceding 28 goals in 46 games in the Nationwide Football League Division One, it appeared that the focus was on strengthening the defence. 36-year-old Steve Bould had already signed from Arsenal five days prior, and on this day 22 years ago, another veteran was added to the defensive ranks in the form Thomas Helmer.
The 34-year-old German international was signed on a free transfer from Bayern Munich where he had spent the previous seven years, some as captain of the Bavarian club. During that time, Helmer had amassed an impressive medal collection, including three league titles, one German Cup, three German League Cups and one UEFA Cup.
Internationally he was capped 68 times by Germany and had been part of the squads that finished runners-up in Euro 92 and won Euro 96. Either side of these campaigns he represented his country at the World Cups in the USA in 1994 and France in 1998.
It was a seriously impressive CV, and I was stupidly excited to see Helmer and Bould line-up together in the Premier League. I imagine Peter Reid was as well... but it wasn’t to be.
Rumours of arguments behind the scenes leading up to our opening day defeat to Chelsea, combined with stories abound that Helmer’s knees weren’t up to the rigours of Premier League football, meant we not not only didn’t see the best of the German legend, but we hardly saw him at all.
Helmer made one start for the club and one more as a substitute and that was that, before heading off to Hertha Berlin where he made a handful of appearances – featuring for Hertha in the Champions League. He returned to Sunderland during the summer, and the club promptly bought out the remainder of his contract. Helmer decided to call time on his pro career there and then.
As Helmer arrived on this day, two players were ready to make decisions on where their futures lay – and it wasn’t at the Stadium of Light.
Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur were in a bidding war for 21-year-old striker Michael Bridges, with Aston Villa waiting in the wings. George Graham thought a bid of £4 million might be enough to take him to Spurs, but Peter Reid was waiting for bids of around £5 million before letting the striker leave the club.
The other that was set to depart was Lee Clark, who after giving Peter Reid little choice but to place him on the transfer list after his fashion faux pas at Wembley in May, was mulling over a move to Fulham.
Paul Bracewell, who was manager at Craven Cottage, had tabled a bid of around £3 million for the 26-year-old, although a rival bid from Celtic, who were managed by Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes, was potentially putting the move at risk. Bracewell was confident, however, that his former Sunderland and Newcastle team mate would follow Andy Melville – who had also just made the move from Sunderland – to SW6.