After missing out on promotion the season before in the cruelest possible way, there was a steely determination about Sunderland as soon as the 98-99 campaign kicked off.
Automatic promotion was the only acceptable outcome.
The 97-98 season had been a slow burn. A disappointing start after relegation saw new players slowly finding their feet and new – and ultimately highly effective – partnerships being established.
However, despite the attacking prowess on show, and the promising young players given their chances, we leaked too many goals to seriously challenge for the automatics, and ultimately paid the price for that defensive fragility at Wembley.
Reid knew in that pre-season that if he strengthened the defence and held on to our brightest players we’d be strong, strong favourites for promotion.
Today, I don’t think we’d keep Phillips, Clark, Johnston or Gray in the second tier for another season, but the Premier League wasn’t quite the be-all-and-end-all that it unfortunately seems to be today.
Reid’s two big signings were Thomas Sorensen, who replaced the flamboyant, entertaining but ultimately unreliable Lionel Perez, and Paul Butler, a tough, no-nonsense central defender from Bury. Together with the recalled Andy Melville, who’d not played much the season before, they formed an incredibly solid base from which the attacking players could perform.
In hindsight, Reidy was a bit of an unpredictable manager. His first promotion season (95/96) was built upon a solid defence – only 33 goals conceded in 46 games, and 59 goals scored.
His second promotion attempt - 97/98 - was built on attack, 86 goals scored in 46 games, but 50 conceded.
Third time’s a charm they say, and in 98/99 he got it incredibly right at both ends – 91 goals scored and only 28 conceded.
Butler was pivotal in our defensive solidity, and 23 years ago today we went back to his old stomping ground of Gigg Lane, knowing a win would secure promotion.
No messing about this season.
So, with five games remaining, we lined up against Neil Warnock’s side determined to get up with the minimum of fuss.
And we did, albeit with the maximum of style.
Kevin Phillips opened the scoring from the spot after 10 minutes, and went on to add another three as the lads romped home 5-2. It was only the sixth time that season we’d conceded two or more in a game, but given the context it’s doubtful Reidy gave a toss.
The irrepressible Niall Quinn netted Sunderland’s other goal, with Phillips sealing promotion in typical style with a wonderful goal in the 90th minute.
After the game, Reidy and the team seemed delighted but not surprised we’d achieved our ambitions – with the gaffer also acknowledging the pivotal role Sunderland’s supporters had played throughout the season – backing the team from the off and roaring them on to victory when – on occasion – it had seemed unlikely.
It’s been a collective thing all season, and I’m not just talking about the players. The fans did their bit as well. It’s been a fantastic achievement all round.
I’m delighted for the fans after the disappointment of last season. Their support this season has been superb.
Michael Gray, who’d been the unfortunate player at Wembley nine months earlier, was unsurprisingly relieved at having helped the club back up.
We’ve worked on clean sheets all season, but when you score five goals who’s going to beat you?
Being local, if I wasn’t playing I’d be out watching as a fan. Every game I play, I know what every Sunderland fan is feeling because I’m doing what they want to be doing.
As an aside, the success of 98-99 was made even more remarkable that two of our best players – Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark – missed huge chunks of the campaign. Clark broke his leg on the opening day of the season, and while his comeback was relatively swift – he missed three months or so – he still only made the starting line up on 26 occasions, missing almost half of the campaign. Philips, who suffered an injury after inexplicably being named in the starting line up for a home game against Chester in the league cup, made 26 league starts too – scoring 23 goals in the process.
But it all came together at Gigg Lane, and we continued in the same vein at Barnsley a few days later, this time sealing the championship.