When people jump on the subject of our first season at the Stadium of Light, no doubt the first memories that spring to mind are are of our heroic failure at Wembley, or our opening game at the stadium against Manchester City, or Quinn and Phillips ripping up Nationwide Football League One to the tune of 47 goals between them.
There were plenty of other positive days to remember and sometimes the odd bad day sneaks into focus, one other than how it all ended at Wembley in May. The one that is usually mentioned above all others is our capitulation at Elm Park in early October when we went down 4-0 to Terry Bullivant’s Reading.
What isn’t mentioned quite as much is that by the time our nightmare at Elm Park came around we had managed to steady the ship after a pretty horrific start to the season.
Expectation was high in the summer of 1998 despite the hangover of our relegation from the Premier League. The disappointment of dropping back down to the second tier, and being the first to go down on 40 points, had slowly ebbed away as the realisation dawned that this was the time we would move to our shiny new home.
As well as having the stadium to support our return to the promised land of excess TV money, the expectation was also boosted by new blood. After only 12 months of breaking the £1 million barrier, Peter Reid almost doubled our current transfer record that stood at the £1.3 million we gave to Manchester City for Niall Quinn, to bring Lee Clark from our nearest and dearest for £2.5 million.
Other additions included Chris Makin, Chris Byrne, Jody Craddock, Edwin Zoetebier and a striker from Watford that not too many people knew much about. Our season got underway at Bramall Lane live on Sky against Nigel Spackman’s Sheffield United and the signs weren’t good.
Niall Quinn cut a lonely figure up top with Alex Rae trying to support the big man, with Lee Clark and Kevin Ball sitting behind him. We looked disjointed and ultimately toothless, and the home side deserved every one of their three points as they ran out 2-0 winners through goals from Jan Aage Fjortoft and Vassilis Borbokis.
Our opener at the Stadium of Light came next against Manchester City, where a 3-1 victory on a night of celebration simply papered over the cracks. Two goals in the last six minutes had given us all three points after ten-man City had forced their way back into the game, when Georgiou Kinkladze equalised from the spot with 15 minutes left on the clock.
Our third game of the season took us to Vale Park, where John Rudge’s Port Vale side blew those cracks wide open. Although we travelled there still finding our feet in the new season with a win and a draw behind us, Port Vale had suffered two straight defeats to open the campaign, and we were confident that we would build on our opening victory at the Stadium of Light - probably a bit too confident.
Within three minutes a ball over the top found Andy Porter down the left, who crossed for Lee Mills to head home past Lionel Perez in the Sunderland goal from close range.
After they went in front, there was only one team in the game, and five minutes before the break they doubled their lead through a cracking left foot volley from the edge of the box by Tony Naylor, which didn’t give Perez a chance.
After the break, with Peter Reid having clearly handed out the hairdryer treatment, we somewhat improved and in the 65th minute should have pulled one back. Sam Aiston’s shot crossed the line before Paul Musselwhite in the Port Vale goal clawed it back onto the line at the second attempt, only for referee Andy D’Urso to wave play-on.
Seven minutes later, Tony Naylor put the game out of reach, and if the home crowd thought his first was good, they probably still talk of his second in the pubs around Vale Park to this day.
He picked the ball up midway inside the Sunderland half, with his back to goal on the left hand side with Andy Melville marking goal side. Naylor then back heeled the ball through Melville’s legs and took off towards goal, and as Richard Ord came across to put in a tackle, Naylor curled the ball from the edge of the box into the far corner to once again give Perez no chance.
A few minutes later, Kevin Phillips scored his second in as many games from close range after the ball dropped from a Martin Smith corner. but it was nothing but a consolation goal as we went down to a second defeat in the opening three games.
It’s a very disappointing result for us. Port Vale played well and I wasn’t happy with the way we performed. We lost too many individual battles. We hardly won a single 50-50 ball and simply didn’t have enough desire to win. We hardly created a real chance and that’s just not good enough.
It’s true we were better in the second half, when some of our players rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in after I’d had a word or two at half-time. We had hard luck with one or two decisions that went against us - one in particular.
As a team we were second best. Hopefully we can get it right against Norwich next. If we can’t there will be changes.
And as Reid promised, when we went down to defeat via the only goal of the game against Norwich, he duly rang the changes. Still took a while to get properly going, but once it did it was some season.
Sunderland: Perez, Makin, Ord, Melville, Gray, Aiston (Mullin), Clark, Ball, Byrne (Smith), Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Craddock
Port Vale: Musselwhite, Hill, Tankard, Talbot (Bogie), Aspin, Glover, McCarthy, Porter, Mills, Naylor (Foyle), Corden (Stokes)