We might be fighting it out for top spot in League One at the moment, but back in 1998 there wasn’t only two divisions between the sides, and in the FA Cup third round we showed exactly what that meant.
Peter Reid’s side were gathering momentum following our relegation from the Premier League, and we were also finding our feet in our new home as we entered the new year having made our way back into a play-off position after a shaky start.
We found ourselves in 12th position in Nationwide Football League Division One following a 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest on the 8th November 1997, but a combination of the return of Niall Quinn and the acquisition of Nicky Summerbee from Manchester City resulted in Sunderland winning six and drawing twice in the final eight games of the year.
The first fixture of 1998 took us away from the usual league schedule where we began our FA Cup campaign at Third Division Rotherham United. New manager Ronnie Moore had taken over at Millmoor after the South Yorkshire club were relegated from Division Two (League One) and as the cup-tie approached, they sitting 5th in the fourth tier only one point behind the automatic promotion places.
As the Lads had scored 17 goals in eight games, the travelling fans were expecting a good day out and after 15 minutes, it looked like it would be a straightforward procession to the fourth round when Kevin Phillips sent former Sunderland goalkeeper Bobby Mimms the wrong way from the spot.
But Rotherham dug-in and went into the break still only a goal behind, despite Sunderland’s dominance in the game. It took until ten minutes into the second half for Alex Rae to break down the left, surging forward with the ball from the halfway line with the Rotherham midfield and defence struggling to track back as the former Millwall midfielder broke.
Rae got to within a couple of yards of the edge of the penalty and, as he so often did in a red and white shirt, played an inch-perfect pass with the outside of his right foot across the face of the goal to find Kevin Phillips in the centre of the goalmouth just six yards out, to knock it back from where it came into the corner of the net to claim his second of the game.
At this point many of the home fans in attendance may have given up hope, but Darren Garner pulled one back with just over twenty minutes on the clock, to potentially set up one of those grandstand finishes that you regularly see in the early round of the FA Cup, but fortunately for the travelling fans, this wasn’t the case.
Only four minutes later, Sunderland restored our two goal cushion, and it was that man Kevin Phillips, this time completing his hat-trick, his first for Sunderland, and it was probably the easiest goal he scored during his long career.
Lee Clark turned the Rotherham defence inside out a couple of yards out from the goal line, just inside the penalty area and created a yard of space to chip the ball to the back post where Phillips was waiting with a Rotherham defender who attempted to clear the ball, but only played it off Phillips right on the goaline.
It was at this point that you could say the Rotherham towel was thrown into the ring, but Reid’s side didn’t really care and four minutes after Phillips completed his hat-trick, the former Watford man scored his fourth, which to this day is still a record for the most individual goals in a FA Cup tie away from home in the club’s history.
Lee Clark broke down the right again and this time crossed deep into the area close to the penalty spot, but landed a couple of yards behind the Republic of Ireland international, who somehow, with one touch hooked the ball a yard in front of him so he was facing the goal and with his next touch fired his shot on goal. Bobby Mimms could only parry his shot into the path of Phillips who slotted home from a couple of yards out.
Then with five minutes remaining, it was his strike partner Niall Quinn getting in on the act to complete the rout and take Sunderland through to the next round, to face John Aldridge’s Tranmere Rovers side, which is a story for another day.
Saturday 3rd January, 1998
FA Cup 3rd Round
Rotherham United 1-5 Sunderland
[Garner 68’ - Phillips (pen) 15’, 55’, 72’, 76’, Quinn 85’]
Sunderland: Perez, Holooway, Craddock, Williams, Gray, Summerbee, Clark, Rae, Johnston, Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Zoetebier, Makin, Ord, Mullin, Smith
Rotherham United: Mimms, Richardson (Goodwin), Roscoe, Garner, Knill, Warner, Berry, Scott, White, Glover, Hurst Substitutes not used: Pettinger, Shuttleworth, Monington, Druce