There are some times in a club’s history that live long in the memory, and for me, the autumn of 1998 is one of those eras. The brand new Stadium of Light was bouncing and goals were flowing like never before – and this match against a poor, under-strength Oxford United was just one high-point in a season where we outclassed everyone to romp home with a record 105 points.
The previous four home fixtures had seen us score an impressive 14 goals as we beat Tranmere 5-0, Watford 4-1, and Ipswich 2-0 in the league, and Chester City 3-0 in the League Cup.
Playing without Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, (the latter had suffered a serious injury in the midweek cup game with Chester), the second-string strikeforce of Michael Bridges and Danny Dichio took centre-stage – and it didn’t take long for them to make their mark.
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Gray (Makin ‘66), Ball, Melville, Butler, Summerbee, Mullin (Rae ‘12), Dichio (Quinn ‘79), Bridges, Johnston
Oxford United: Whitehead, Robinson, Marsh, Gray, Whelan, Gilcrist, Powell, Smith, Thomson, Windass, Beauchamp
Bridges hadn’t started since the previous November, but only three minutes were on the clock when he nipped in at the front post to convert Darren William’s low cross after some good work from Nicky Summerbee on the right-wing.
Four minutes later it was another local lad, Micky Gray – sporting an electric-blond mop-top hair-do – who smashed a free-kick from the edge of the box off the inside of the right-hand post and into the back of the net to make it two-nil. John Mullin, who had been fouled for the free-kick, went off on 12 minutes to be replaced by Alex Rae.
On 33 minutes, a clipped ball into the box from Summerbee towards Allan Johnston saw the Scottish winger hauled to the ground by Les Robinson, leaving the ref with no option but to award a spot-kick, which was duly converted by Dichio. Three up at half-time, but Sunderland were only just getting started.
Eight minutes into the second half, a long punt upfield was held up by Johnston and laid off to the onrushing Rae, who took the opportunity of a one-on-one with aplomb, nutmegging the hapless Phil Whitehead in the Oxford goal. Two minutes later, Bridges got his second and Sunderland’s fifth, finishing off a flowing counter-attack involving Summerbee and Dichio.
Number six came in the 66th minute, Dichio pouncing on a mistake in the box by Phil Gilcrist to score from the narrowest of angles, and the rout was complete on 82, when the impressive Rae – who could have had a hattrick – played a lovely one-two with bridges before slamming the ball home off the underside of the bar. 7-0 and those of us who were there that day felt we really could fly without wings on the back of Reidy’s kings.
This was Oxford’s heaviest defeat in their history, the previous worst result coming in 1986 when Liverpool beat them 6-0 at Anfield, and it really hit them hard.
Former Sunderland man Martin Gray, who had transferred to the Yellows two years previously for £100,000 was, according to the Oxford Mail, “the only Oxford players to fight right through the game”, and he was clear that the inexperience of their side was to blame for the manner and scale of the defeat:
We all let outselves down. You can’t really say our young players were over-awed by it - we all let ourleves down. The last thing the boss said before we went out was to try to keep it quiet for 25 minutes and what do we do? We concede two goals in the first six minutes and then we’re chasing.
It must have been like Christmas for Sunderland to get seven goals. We worked hard at the back end of last week on stopping their wide players but we didn’t do it.
Sunderland boss, Peter Reid, was keen to play down the significance of the result to the waiting media:
I would not say that is our best performance since I became manager. It could have been better but perhaps I’m a perfectionist. In the second half, we were magnificent, quick on the break, good quick passing, and some very good finishing. It’s a great result though and I’m very pleased – but you don’t win anything in September.
Malcolm Shotton, spoke to the local paper later in the day, having initially been too shocked - or too angry - to give a post-match debrief. When he did speak, he sent a message to his club’s board:
You can only get so much out of your players and when their tongues are hanging out you know there’s no more you can get out of them. We’ve got to look at which way we want to go now because, one thing’s for certain, when you come up against the kind of players that they can just bring in when they get injuries with the kind of squad we have when we get injuries, we just can’t cope. Sunderland are very good, and are possibly going to go on and win this league.
And that we did. The goals, the wins, and the points just kept on coming as Sunderland made sure that no playoffs would be needed to secure our place back in the top flight once more.