Wearside was ramping up for Christmas at this point in 1998, whilst at the same time Sunderland AFC was picking up the pace again in their push for the Premiership.
Peter Reid’s side had started the campaign strongly as they looked to bounce back from Play-Off final heartbreak at the end of 1997-98.
There was a momentary wobble when Barnsley pulled off a shock win at the Stadium of Light at the end of November to inflict a first defeat of the season, but the Lads responded to that setback brilliantly, and were now looking to build another long unbeaten run.
Victories over Sheffield United, Luton Town (in the Worthington Cup) and Stockport County soon followed, and now on this day it was time to try and keep things going against Port Vale – who Sunderland had already beaten when they visited the Potteries a week prior to the Barnsley match.
At Vale Park they had been comfortably the better side and were hoping that would be the case once more, although injuries had continually threatened to derail things over recent weeks and Reid was again having to consider his options before kick-off.
Nicky Summerbee had scored the only goal of the game last time out against Stockport but had since picked up a knock, as had fellow winger Allan Johnston. The pair had joined an ever-changing list of absentees, therefore, but Sunderland’s squad depth was proving to be a key factor in the promotion push and so it proved here – Reid being able to hand Alex Rae a first start since his return from rehabilitation whilst also picking fan favourite Martin Smith.
Other sides in the division could only dream of having such quality in reserve to call upon, but the team was still without star striker Kevin Phillips whilst the recent return of Lee Clark meant that Rae was required to play in a less familiar role out wide. The Lads seemed to thrive in adversity however and were able to take whatever problems that came in their stride; Rae and Smith slotted in easily, and the Sunderland machine was soon running as efficiently as ever.
Michael Bridges had made the most of his chance since Phillips’ injury and some clever footwork from him created the opener for Smith, who swiveled well on the edge of the box to sweep the ball into the net.
Clark then crashed a shot against the underside of the bar following a clever flick from Smith, and after another close call Sunderland did then extend their lead.
Andy Melville saw a header cleared off the line but was soon putting more pressure on the Port Vale back line and making it hard for them to fully clear the danger. He won possession back and put the ball out wide, and from there Rae picked out Paul Butler at the far post for a lovely diving header.
That was it for the scoring, although Sunderland could have easily got themselves more goals had they wanted to push it with Man of the Match Rae going closest when he too hit the woodwork.
It was a professional performance all round though, and it meant that Reid was still top of the league – a position that they wouldn’t give up as they cruised to the Division One title.
Saturday 12 December 1998
Nationwide League Division One
Sunderland 2 (Smith 24, Butler 44)
Port Vale 0
Sunderland: Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Melville, Scott; Rae (McCann 83), Ball, Clark, Smith; Quinn, Bridges (Dichio 85). Unused: Williams.
Stadium of Light, attendance 37,583
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