Peter Reid’s Sunderland started the 1998/99 season the way they intended to approach the whole campaign, with a ruthlessness and will to win that befitted their position as clear favourites for promotion back to the Premier League.
The side that took on Ray Harford’s Queen’s Park Rangers included two important new signings, goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen and centre-back Paul Butler, whose recruitment pointed towards a focus on defensive solidity to complete Sunderland’s undoubted attacking prowess.
Over 40,000 supporters flocked to the Stadium of Light on the opening day, 74 days after we left Wembley dejected following the penalty shootout loss to Charlton Athletic. The core of the previous season’s squad was still in place - with Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips leading the line and Nicky Summerbee and Allan Johnston on the wings.
QPR were without injured player-coach Vinnie Jones, but the legendary hard-man’s influence on the Hoops wasn’t hard to see. Ex-Newcastle man and future evangelical preacher, Gavin Peacock, picked up the first yellow card on 34 minutes, which was followed by the first half’s biggest incident as Keith Rowland’s tackle on Lee Clark left the creative midfielder with a broken leg. Rowlands probably should have walked, but referee Chris Foy opted for the booking.
Without our creative spark, the referee would turn out to be the decisive factor in a tightly fought game. The key moment of the afternoon came on 75 minutes, when captain Kevin Ball shot was handled on the line by QPR defender Ian Baraclough.
The west Londoners protested, convinced that Quinn had impeded ‘keeper Lee Harper in the run-up, but the man with the whistle was having none of it - awarding Sunderland the spot-kick and giving Baraclough his marching orders.
Phillips stepped up to score the first of his 23 goals, and the home fans were in raptures once more, the bad memories evaporating to be replaced by prospect of a successful promotion push.
Despite Harford later claiming that the visitors were unlucky to come away from the game empty-handed, the match stats tell a different story; Sunderland having eight shots on target to Rangers’ two.
It does feel fantastic to get three points in the bag in the first game of the season - it sets the pace for the long, hard yards ahead. As we know, Sunderland broke records on their way to 105 points that year. Wouldn’t it be nice to replicate something similar 23 years later!