We didn’t know it at the time, but the signing of injury-prone Manchester City striker Niall Quinn would change the course of history for Sunderland, starting a beautiful relationship between the player and the club that still lives on to this day.
Funnily, many fans at the time were unsure about why we signed Quinn.
He’d had a canny career, but his inability to stay fit had plagued him at both Arsenal and City, and as such it was going to take a bit of hard work to convince the doubters that he was the man to fire Sunderland to Premier League safety.
As it turned out, Quinny spent most of the season sidelined and we hardly scored a goal, which is probably a key reason for why we ended up going straight back down.
In his column in the Sunday World - an Irish Newspaper - Quinn spoke of his delight at moving to Wearside, calling it ‘a dream come true’:
The last four days have been like a dream come true.
I’m back in the Premiership, with a club that’s going places, led by a manager I trust and it all augurs well for my international place. I just hope I don’t wake up soon from this dream.
Gillian and I are going to make the most of this move to Sunderland, in English football’s hot-bed of the North-East.
We’re going to sell the house in Manchester and move up here. I’ll be 30 in October and this is probably the last big transfer of my career.
There wouldn’t be any point in living down in Manchester and traveling up and down to Sunderland four days a week.
Nor would we be interested in just renting a house up here and getting ready to bolt back South in two years time. That’s never been my style. We are in this 100% or not at all.
I know there are already knockers out there saying that all I’ve done by moving from Manchester City to Sunderland is put off First Division football for a season.
Those cynics don’t know our manager Peter Reid. Not only is he convinced we will stay up, but Reidy is ready to make an impact in the Premiership.
But, alas, on this day in 1996, all fans were hoping that our return to the top tier for the first time since 1991 would be the start of a new beginning under Peter Reid.
Our opening fixture was against Leicester City, managed by boyhood Sunderland fan and future manager Martin O’Neill, who had come up with us from Division One after winning the Play-Off final against Crystal Palace. They went on to have a fantastic season, finishing 9th, winning the League Cup and qualifying for Europe.
Making his debut that day was goalkeeper Tony Coton - signed from Manchester United for £600,000, Coton would go on to, unfortunately, suffer a career-ending leg break against Southampton, making him one of the club’s most expensive ‘flops’ at the time.
Quinny wasn’t amongst the starters, with Peter Reid instead opting to go with David Kelly and Paul Stewart up top, so was made to wait his turn before turning out in front of the 19,000 Sunderland supporters in attendance.
In the Leicester team that day, interestingly, was another future Sunderland manager - Simon Grayson, playing at right-back up against Michael Gray.
Despite the goalless scoreline, the game wasn’t short on chances - though the first half was a bit dull and boring, despite the fact the pitch looked lush and the sun was shining brightly.
After a fantastic cross was fired into the box by Kevin Ball, the bald head of Steve Agnew rose highest to meet the ball, almost lobbing Kasey Keller - but the USA international tipped it over.
With the scores all square at the break, Quinny made his introduction just eleven minutes into the second half, replacing David Kelly to the rapturous applause of the Sunderland faithful.
His first two touches of the ball in a Sunderland shirt resulted in the ball hitting the back of the net - but the goal was disallowed by the referee after Quinny was adjudged to have fouled, winning the ball after a long-free kick into the area from Martin Scott.
What an introduction that could have been!
Leicester then had chances of their own, the best coming from young forward Emile Heskey, who sprinted at pace past several Sunderland players with the ball after dispossessing Michael Gray inside his own half - but Tony Coton in the Sunderland goal spread himself wide and was able to make the save with his legs.
Quinn had another pop at trying to get himself on the scoresheet, powering a fine diving header goalwards at Kasey Keller after meeting Agnew’s cross, but the Leicester keeper held the ball.
Keller - also making his debut that day - was called into action right at the death once again, this time tipping over Paul Stewart’s header at full stretch in the last minute to ensure his side escaped Wearside with a vital first point of the season.
The Sunderland fans were happy with what they had seen from Quinn, and the impact that he had made in the second half, hopeful that he’d give us the presence required up top to be a real force in the top flight.