For those of a certain age such as myself, the theme music for ‘The Match’ - which would every month or so host a live game on Tyne-Tees of one of the north-east ‘big-three’ in the Football League - will surely send a shiver down your spine.
The voice of Roger Thames would quite often follow a slick introduction from the imposing Duncan Wood, which would more often than not, be followed by the Lads taking a pasting.
But times were changing and for the first time since we were relegated from the old First Division back in May 1991, we could see the club making some real progress and things were looking up. The first half of the 1990s had been pretty horrific, but the introduction of Peter Reid to replace Mick Buxton gave us a direction.
After keeping us safe following the seven remaining games of the previous season, Reid went to work, and proceeded to work wonders with pretty much the same squad. Players who had been struggling for form in previous years were now flourishing in a new brand of football and the players were responding.
The biggest changes came in the backroom staff where Paul Bracewell came back to the club for his third spell as player/assistant manager and Bobby Saxton was the main man on the training ground.
On the pitch, very little business was done during pre-season, with only John Mullin joining the first team squad. As the season progressed, the likes of Paul Stewart and Gareth Hall were added to the ranks and then later the cash was splashed on David Kelly from Wolves.
But as we took a wobble over the festive period, dropping from top spot after beating Millwall 6-0 at Roker Park on the 9th December, to 7th by mid-January, Reid made a signing and a decision that had everyone scratching their heads. A deal was struck to sign an 18-year-old, largely unknown goalkeeper from Blackburn Rovers who was playing reserve team football by the name of Shay Given.
In our next fixture away at Filbert Street, our experienced number one, Alec Chamberlain, was immediately dropped to make way for the young Irishman to the surprise of the majority. Four clean sheets in his first five games followed and he didn’t look back, and neither did we.
Fast forward to the 17th March 1996, on this day 26 years ago, we were second in the table behind Jim Smith’s Derby County on a run of six straight wins where only one goal was conceded.
Barry Fry’s Birmingham City were our next opposition, and they were attempting to stop us equalling the club's best run of results of the century in front of 3,000 travelling fans to St Andrews - which was always an experience to visit during this era.
It was one of those seasons where the first XI pretty much rolled off the tongue and most who followed Reid’s side that year will still be able to reel off the starting line-up that turned out in the red and white stripes most weeks that year. Our visit to Birmingham was no exception with a full-strength side after Andy Melville returned from injury having missed the previous victory at Oldham Athletic.
The Welshman replaced Lee Howey, who was maybe unfortunate to drop to the bench having put in a number of solid performances at the back when required during the season. But it was Reid’s faith in his starting XI that meant Melville returned to the side. Phil Gray was also still on the bench following the breakdown of contract talks and that meant Paul Stewart and Craig Russell continued their impressive partnership up top.
In midfield, Ball and Bracewell were about as formidable as it came in Endsleigh League Division One that year, and Steve Agnew and Micky Gray were doing the business down the flanks.
Barry Fry, however, was about as far towards the other end of the spectrum as it was possible to go. At one point there were around 50 professional players at Birmingham City under Fry and it was inevitable that a settled side wasn’t going to be found easily.
Notable names in that Birmingham side were a future Sunderland captain in Gary Breen at the back and on-loan midfielder Vinny Samways who had joined from Everton.
The smell of Sunday dinner was in the air, it was a cold, bright spring day, Roger Thames set off going through the teams and in past years that would be enough to begin thinking the inevitable was about to happen, but this team was different, and maximum point looked in the bag almost from the off.
After only 16 minutes, Steve Agnew fired us into an early lead from close range and although it took until just after the hour mark for Andy Melville to double our lead with a header, it wasn’t even close. Reid’s side became machine-like at the business end of the season and the levels of calm were bizarre and unnerving.
Sunday 17th March, 1996
Endsleigh League Division One
Birmingham City 0-2 Sunderland
[Agnew 16’, Melville 64’]
Birmingham City: Griemink, Bass (Forsyth), Frain, Tait, Breen, Johnson, Hunt, Samways (Bowen), Barnes, Devlin (Richardson), Legg
Sunderland: Given, Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott, Agnew, Ball, Bracewell, M. Gray, Russell (Bridges), Stewart (P. Gray (Hall))