Reidy’s promotion push was really gathering pace this time 26 years ago, and a run of four consecutive wins had pushed the club into second position, seven points behind high-flying Derby County, albeit with two games in hand.
So, as Jim Smith’s team arrived at Roker Park, it had the sense of a big, big game – illustrated by a near-capacity crowd of 21,644, who observed a minute’s silence following the death of former Sunderland manager Alan Brown.
While Marco Gabbiadini donned the number 10 shirt for the Rams, wearing 10 for Sunderland was Paul Stewart, who was making a ‘second debut’ for the lads. Stewart had arrived on loan from Liverpool earlier in the season, only to make a couple of appearances before suffering a serious injury, and had been sent back to Merseyside to regain fitness. Fast forward six months, Stewart had rejoined the club, and was immediately given a starting berth, with Reid wanting to add experience to a relatively youthful attack.
While 17-year-old Michael Bridges had grabbed headlines with his first goal for the club at Southend a couple of weeks previous, it was Craig Russell who was leading the goalscoring charts, with nine goals to date.
And, with an expectant crowd who’d completely bought into the Reid revolution creating a white-hot atmosphere, it was Russell who opened the scoring after only eight minutes – finishing nearly across Derby keeper Hoult in the Fulwell End goal.
The two teams went blow for blow as you’d expect in a top of the table game, and it was the lads who extended the lead, the always lively Steve Agnew tapping in at the back stick to make it two.
Derby made a double sub at half time to try to find a way back into the game, but it was Craig Russell who put the game beyond doubt, hooking in from close range to seal a 3-0 win.
In goal, Shay Given once again impressed – a few days later, Blackburn extended the keeper’s loan until the end of the season – while up front Stewart produced a good display, linking the midfield and attack up well and providing a focal point we’d maybe been lacking in the weeks prior.
The win kept the momentum going and the crowd gave Roker Park its first true rendition of ‘Cheer Up Peter Reid’ – while the chant had, like the team, gained momentum over recent weeks this was the first time (as far as my memory goes, at least) that it encaptured the whole of Roker.
From here on in, we got better and better – Stewart was important, but the team continued to grow in confidence and, in fact, we didn’t taste defeat again all season until the final day of the campaign, when the title was already secure.
By that time, we ended up four points ahead of second placed Derby, winning the title with a relatively modest 83 points from 46 games.
But, as the song told us, the good times they were here – and we all left Roker Park on this day in 1996 truly believing they were.