Leicester had been promoted through the play-offs as we won the championship in 1995-96, but as we’d fallen back out of the top flight at the first time of asking, Martin O’Neill’s team had recorded ninth and tenth-placed finishes, had won the League Cup and consequently played European football.
O’Neill had taken over at the Foxes in December 1995, after leaving Norwich after a falling out over the potential signing of Dean Windass, and after achieving promotion at the first attempt he built an incredibly effective side – one which was arguably greater than the sum of its parts.
After the disappointment of our play-off defeat to Charlton, Peter Reid had built a side that looked a class above the league we were playing in – sitting comfortably at the top of the league having lost only two league games all season.
The fact that the majority of this had been achieved in the main without Kevin Phillips – injured in a Worthington Cup tie at home to Chester in September – and Lee Clark, who suffered a broken leg in the season’s opening fixture – made it all the more impressive.
After seeing off Premiership opposition in the form of Everton on penalties in the Worthington Cup, Sunderland faced a cup double header against Premiership opposition. First, we took on Blackburn at Ewood Park in the FA Cup, and then Leicester at home in the first leg of a two-legged League Cup semi.
Were we really the ‘real deal’, or was there still a notable gap between the best in our division and the top flight?
The Blackburn game saw us go down 1-0 to a Keith Gillespie goal, so all eyes turned to the Stadium of Light 23 years ago today.
A crowd of just over 38,000 – which was around the level we attracted for big games so far that season – gathered to see just how the lads would cope with another top-flight opponent.
And, in truth, there was a noticeable gulf in class on the night as Leicester emerged 2-1 victors, veteran former England striker Tony Cottee, who’d enjoyed a new lease of life under O’Neill – who had brought him back to English football from a season in Malaysia – netting two goals.
Sunderland just weren’t on form. Employing a narrower midfield than usual (Nicky Summerbee, who’d missed a few games from injury, was on the bench for the game), we struggled to break through a Foxes defence consisting of Steve Walsh, Matt Elliott and Gerry Taggart. Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon ran the midfield – dominating Kevin Ball, Lee Clark and Gavin McCann.
Niall Quinn could have scored early on, shooting straight at Don Goodman’s favourite keeper Kasey Keller, but Cottee scored the game's opener, shooting past Sorensen after Frank Sinclair had got past Michael Gray to put in a cross for the former West Ham man.
Sorensen was, fortunately, in good form, saving well from Izzet, and Sunderland were handed a boost when the impressive Heskey was forced off the field through injury.
At the time, Heskey was one of the game’s hottest properties – a strong, pacy, dynamic striker who had the potential to achieve great things. In hindsight, his move to Liverpool was arguably the wrong one for all concerned.
Heskey’s withdrawal failed to blunt Leicester’s attacking threat, and as Andy Melville could only block Izzet’s shot Cottee pounced to make it 2-0.
Sunderland were at sixes and sevens, typified by Kevin Ball and Lee Clark visibly arguing over a free kick in the second half, but the lads got a perhaps undeserved lifeline, however, when McCann’s free kick somehow found its way in.
It set up a second leg with all to play for, and a third opportunity in close succession for Sunderland to prove to themselves and the supporters that this was a team that could, indeed, compete with higher-level opponents.
Sunderland 1-2 Leicester City
26 January 1999, Stadium of Light. 38,332
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Melville, Butler, Gray, McCann, Ball, Clark (Smith 64), Johnston (Summerbee 64), Quinn, Phillips. Subs not used: Marriott, Craddock, Dichio.
Leicester: Keller, Elliott, Walsh, Taggart, Sinclair (Kamark 61), Izzet, Lennon, Ullathorne, Guppy, Cottee, Heskey (Wilson 60). Subs not used: Arphexad, Zagorakis, Parker