When Michael Gray missed that penalty at a dilapidated Wembley Stadium in May 1998 it felt like the end of the World.
Following relegation from our first season in the Premier League we moved into our brand-spanking new home, and after a wobbly start, we were flying. In most other seasons, 90 points would have seen us finish in the top two, but Dave Bassett’s Nottingham Forest and Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough did the business and pipped us to the post.
Once we failed to bounce straight back to the top flight at the first attempt at Wembley, it felt we’d be in for another long, tough season in the Nationwide Football League Division One.
In the summer, Peter Reid only added two new names to strengthen the squad, Thomas Sorensen came in to replace the outgoing Lionel Perez and Paul Butler arrived from Bury to provide another option at the back.
Nobody quite knew how the squad would react after Wembley, but we didn’t suffer defeat in any competition until November 21st and our 19th league game of the season when we went down 3-2 at Barnsley. Next up, we travelled to Sheffield United, where Steve Bruce had taken up the reigns as player-manager.
In the week leading up to our trip to South Yorkshire, Peter Reid dipped into the transfer market when he spent £300,000 on bringing Gavin McCann to the Stadium of Light from Everton and was in-line for a place on the bench at Bramall Lane.
All eyes were on the Lads reaction following our first defeat of the season and after only seven minutes, we realised there was nothing to worry about when Niall Quinn opened the scoring.
A Nicky Summerbee free-kick from the right evaded everyone, even though it bounced in front of goal and found its way to Quinn at the back post who headed in from close range.
Quinn’s usual strike partner, Kevin Phillips was missing through injury and Michael Bridges took his place up top for Sunderland and five minutes after Quinn’s opener, Bridges got one for himself.
Chris Makin cut inside onto his left foot and dropped a lovely ball into the feet of Bridges who took one touch to kill the ball, another to turn Shaun Derry and Steve Bruce inside out and then a third to finish past Simon Tracey. It was a goal that showed once again the potential of Michael Bridges at such a young age, and it was a goal that probably went some way to retiring Steve Bruce as a player.
Twenty minutes later, Bridges was at it again when Allan Johnston took a quick free-kick and played it over the top to find Bridges behind the United backline and after leaving the goalkeeper on the floor finished to get his second of the game.
3-0 at half-time and virtually game over - during this season, this wasn’t that rare an occurrence.
The tempo of the game dropped in the second half as the direction of the three points were a formality but as Allan Johnston was brought down in the area, Michael Bridges had a chance to claim a hat-trick from the spot - but could only put it wide.
With fifteen minutes left on the clock, a Chris Makin shot was saved by Tracey but Quinn was waiting to pounce and slotted the ball home to make it four. On another day it could have easily been six or seven.
After Quinn put away the fourth, Gavin McCann replaced Kevin Ball in midfield to make his debut for Sunderland to put the icing on the cake.
Watching back at some of the highlights of this game and indeed this season, football seemed so simple back then.
Saturday 28th November, 1998
Nationwide Football League Division One
Sheffield United 0 - 4 Sunderland
[Quinn 7’, 75’, Bridges 13’, 35’]
Sheffield United: Tracey, Borbokis, Quinn, Hamilton, Derry, Bruce, Ford (Marcelo), Marker (Nilsen), Katchuro (Henry), Woodhouse, Stuart
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Melville (Craddock), Butler, Scott, Summerbee, Ball (McCann), Clark, Johnston, Quinn (Dichio), Bridges