Ah, the magic of the third round of the FA Cup. Our “On This Day” feature will this week likely be dominated by misty-eyed reminiscences about what was, until the last few at least, our entry into the most prestigious domestic cup competition in the world.
Sometimes we’d be drawn against a minnow and have to navigate a potential banana-skin of a tie, other times we’d be the David in a clash that gave us the opportunity to be the ones slaying a Goliath. A draw against Arsenal definitely cast Sunderland as the underdog in the only all-Premiership clash of a snow-affected third round draw in 1997.
Both the high-flying Gunners, who sat third in the league level on points with Newcastle in second and Liverpool on fourth, and mid-table Black Cats had to make changes leading into this one.
Peter Reid was forced to field our second-string attack, with Paul Stewart out with a knee injury and Craig Russell only fit enough for a place on the bench after recovering from the flu, so 21-year-old John Mullin partnered 18-year-old Michael Bridges up front.
The home side were without four experienced England internationals as David Seaman, Lee Dixon, and David Platt were all out injured and Ian Wright was suspended, so John Hartson started in attack and veteran John Lukic played in goal. Even with those big names missing, the Arsenal lineup is full of names that still jump out of the pages of the match report; Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vierra, Paul Merson, Tony Adams, and Steve Bould.
Arsene Wenger had a prestigious record in cup competitions, having won the Cupe de France with Monaco and the Emperor’s Cup in Japan with Grampus Eight, and three months into his life-defining assignment as supremo at Arsenal, this game was his first taste of the original English version.
FourFourTwo magazine lists this as one of the defining nine FA Cup games of Arsene Wenger’s career at Arsenal, due to the esteem in which the Alsatian held the competition; the Final had been a big occasion in his village when he was a child in the 1950s.
“Le Professeur” would go on to become the most successful manager in the competition’s long history, claiming seven titles over the subsequent two decades and transforming the English game along the way.
But on a wintery afternoon in the capital, he got a taste of how the big guns and famous names often find themselves frustrated by a plucky Cup contender and how the most traditional of football occasions can inspire individual players to make their name in the English game.
This game was notable less for the goals scored by each team, but for the performance of another Frenchman - Sunderland goalkeeper Lionel Perez.
He made an impression right from the start, getting a touch to the ball as Bergkamp ran through on goal and allowing the defence to clear. However, we fell behind after only 10 minutes, with Hartson heading home off the underside of the bar from a Merson cross, but ten minutes later we grabbed an equaliser.
It was a beauty of a goal too, with Bridges and Mullin combining before the ball was laid off to Micky Gray, who piled it home from 18 yards. The bizarre group goal celebration, the players following Gray’s lead in patting their heads with one hand and making a nose with the other, left the BBC Match of the Day commentator as perplexed as the rest of us.
From then on in it was backs-against-the-wall stuff from Sunderland, with Melville clearing off the line and then appearing to handle one on - or slightly behind - the line following a goalmouth scramble, only for the ref to turn down the Gunners’ appeal. Reid later admitted that it should have been a penalty... but this was a long time before goalline technology or VAR replays, and we dodged that bullet!
It was level at the break, and moments after the restart Perez make a lightning reaction save to his left from Merson to keep the scores level. He then grabbed down at Hartson’s feet as he broke through on goal and made a double stop from the Welshman before the end of the game. Wenger would later congratulate his countryman for his performance, saying he had “played extremely well against us”.
The game also marked the debut of a player signed from York City who would go on to be a mainstay of Reid’s Sunderland side for years to come, Darren Williams. The youngster came off the bench to replace Steve Agnew, who broke his wrist getting in the way of a Steve Morrow shot - another injury to add to the growing list.
Sunderland held on for a replay - which we lost 2-0 at Roker Park, but not before we’d beaten them at home in the League on 11th January. We wouldn’t win again in the league until beating Manchester United in March 1997, and we plummeted towards the most unfortunate of relegations in the final season at our famous old ground.