On the back of the season prior, we didn’t quite know what to expect of Peter Reid’s first full campaign in charge at Roker Park.
The previous year had resulted in a salvage job as Reid took over from Mick Buxton with seven games remaining to confirm our status in Endsleigh League Division One. Having done that, the ex-England international signed a new long-term contract and set to work in making sure that another tussle with the drop would be avoided.
Only Paul Bracewell and John Mullin were added to the ranks during the summer as the new manager appeared to put faith in the players who were already at the club, handing new contracts out to the likes of Richard Ord in the process.
Any early season optimism began to drift as the campaign got underway as we managed one win in the opening five fixtures, which came at Roker Park against Graham Taylor’s Wolverhampton Wanderers at the end of August - who included ex-Sunderland striker Don Goodman and ex-Newcastle United frontman David Kelly in their ranks.
By the time Reading were due to visit Roker in our 10th League game of the season, we had climbed up to 7th position in Division One after an impressive 2-1 over Mick McCarthy’s Millwall at the New Den.
Making his debut for the lads in the capital was someone who had faced us a month earlier in that victory over Wolves, after Peter Reid finally got the cheque book out and signed Republic of Ireland international David Kelly from the West Midlands for £900,000.
The signing had clearly got the attention of the fans as the biggest gate since the opening day of the season were present at Roker Park for the visit of Reading on this day 26 years ago.
Kevin Ball missed out on the victory at Millwall in the previous game due to suspension after being sent off in the win over Ronnie Whelan’s Southend United at Roker Park, and had to settle for a place on the bench as Reid went for an unchanged side, which also meant the Roker faithful got their first look at new signing David Kelly in his home debut.
The first half came and went with virtually zero goalmouth action but the second half nearly got off to a flying start when Martin Scott swung in a perfect cross from the left which found Kelly at the back post, who, with a diving header, tried to send the ball back from where it came into the far top corner of the Roker End goal, but it agonisingly went wide, shaving the post as it went.
Reading took full advantage of this reprieve and with ten minutes of the second half gone, Stuart Lovell opened the scoring with a close-range header after being unmarked in the penalty area. Sunderland would have to wait until there were only 15 minutes left on the clock and it was the time for our new signing to open his Sunderland account.
Bracewell and Atkinson hounded the Reading midfield to win back possession and release Martin Smith who found Bracewell down the left after he overlapped down the flank. He cut back on his right foot to play the ball back to Phil Gray on the edge of the area who didn’t quite get his shot off, which meant the ball found its way to Kelly at the back post on his left foot to smash the ball home from 10 yards out.
With 3 minutes left on the clock, however, Dylan Kerr scored an impressive free-kick from 25 yards out at the Fulwell End that left Chamberlain rooted to the spot, and in the years leading up to Peter Reid’s arrival this would have meant game over - but things were beginning to change at Roker Park.
With a minute left on the clock, Craig Russell picked the ball up midway into the Reading half on the left-hand side and by sheer determination beat two Reading players to get to the goal line. He pulled a low ball back into the box which found Phil Gray 6 yards out, who with a clever back-heel forced a save from Bulgarian goalkeeper Mikhailov, who palmed the ball into the feet of the waiting Andy Melville to score a much-deserved equaliser.
Although disappointed with the draw, the point had moved Sunderland into a play-off position for the first time since Denis Smith finished in a top-six position over five years earlier. Following the game, Peter Reid was full of praise for his new signing after he had opened his account for Sunderland:
The thing I like about him is that he isn’t worried about missing. He’s always getting chances and when he misses a couple he still has the confidence to stick the next one in the net. He works very well with Phil Gray and gets across defenders in the box superbly.
In other news, which came the day after the game, in his column in the Irish newspaper the Sunday World, Niall Quinn discussed the latest goings-on at Manchester City:
Manchester City reserves had their biggest attendance of the season at home to Coventry on Tuesday night - because manager Alan Ball said we were all for sale. There were about 112 people at Maine Road and 72 of them were scouts after Alan had let clubs know that we were all available.
Thankfully I scored my first goal since the pre-season tour to Ireland but I still don’t know where I stand. In reality I probably find myself on trial looking for a new club for the first time since I left Ireland as a raw teenager. There has been talk of a move to join David Kelly at Sunderland but that’s all it is at the moment, talk. There is nothing in the pipeline.
It would be another 10 months until Quinn came to Roker, but it was worth the wait.
Sunderland: Chamberlain, Kubicki, Melville, Ord (Ball), Scott, M. Gray, Bracewell, Mullin (Smith), Atkinson (Russell), P. Gray, Kelly
Reading: Mikhailov, Bernal, Gooding, Holsgrove (Codner), Thorp, Wdowczyk, Gilkes, Parkinson, Nogan (Quinn), Lambert (Kerr), Lovell