Sunderland’s record against Southend United during the mid-1990s was curious to say the least. Having suffered double defeat to the Shrimpers in 1991-92 the following three seasons saw the Lads win each of their trips to Roots Hall whilst losing all the return fixtures on Wearside.
There was clearly something in the Southend-on-Sea air that appealed to the team, who in 1995-96 broke the sequence and secured their own double. The first fixture between the sides that season was a tight 1-0 win at Roker Park that lifted Sunderland over their visitors and into 15th place, but by the time they were next playing each other both sides had moved up into the play-off picture.
The game was set to be a tough fixture regardless, therefore, but what made it even harder was the weather in Essex – a blanket of fog covered the pitch and made this a battle of attrition in which Sunderland had to stand up and be counted. Under manager Peter Reid that was a given though, and slowly but surely, they began winning the fight through the centre of the pitch. On the wing, Michael Gray started having a heavy influence too and by half time they were well on top.
Sunderland turned their pressure into a goal shortly after the break when they were awarded a penalty for a foul on Lee Howey. Earlier in the season the side had endured a shocking run in which only one of eight spot-kicks was converted, but Martin Scott had since tucked the next two away and so he confidently stepped once more to strike the ball hard and low into the corner.
Howey went close to making it 2-0 when he headed a chance against the bar, only for his replacement Michael Bridges to extend the lead instead seconds after his introduction. Making only his fourth appearance for the first team, the young star outpaced the Southend defence and rolled the ball past keeper Simon Royce to grab his first senior goal. It was the perfect example of what Bridges’ fledgling game was about, but unfortunately his moment in the spotlight can barely be made out on television footage due to the thickening mist.
With conditions worsening it was now impossible for the players to see to the far side of the pitch, whilst some of the travelling fans were oblivious to the fact that their side had taken a further stranglehold on the game. There were serious fears that referee Graham Barber would be forced to abandon the game, therefore, but he decided to hold on and so too did Sunderland, who made it three clean sheets and three wins in a row.
There are parallels with this match and the one against Cardiff City in 2005 that was used for yesterday’s On This Day feature. On both occasions the victories took Sunderland into the top two and they came in the early stages of winning streaks that would eventually propel them to promotion. The 1996 vintage clocked up nine straight wins in total during a run that included a further three goals from Bridges, who nine years later had returned for a second spell and was an unused substitute against Cardiff.
Although they were familiar foes 26 years ago it would be another decade before Sunderland next played Southend, whose own push would eventually fade away as they ended the season in midtable. Thankfully though, and despite poor visibility on this particular night, Reid’s men were able to see the job out.
Tuesday 27 February 1996
Endsleigh League Division One
Southend United 0
Sunderland 2 (Scott 53, Bridges 80)
Sunderland: Given; Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott; Mi Gray, Ball, Bracewell, Agnew; Howey (Bridges 79), P Gray. Unused: Ma Gray, Hall.
Roots Hall, attendance 5, 786