A dominant and reliable goalkeeper
Following the departure of the talented but erratic Lionel Perez, Sunderland needed to find a suitable replacement in order to mount a sustained automatic promotion challenge, and boy, did we strike gold during the summer of 1998.
Thomas Sorensen was an unknown quantity at the time, but when he eventually departed Wearside for Aston Villa in 2003, he had cemented his place as arguably the finest home goalkeeper to grace the Stadium of Light.
Recruited from Odense for the princely sum of £1 million, it could've been seen as a gamble to take a punt on such a young player, but as it turned out, he became one of the most crucial pieces of the jigsaw.
Tall, rangy, and blessed with sharp reflexes and a command of his penalty area that belied his tender years, Sorensen was nothing short of a revelation. He took to Division One with ease, and was never shy about giving his older teammates a rollicking if he felt they were slacking.
As well as his prowess in goal, the Danish international also chalked up a very memorable assist, when his booming kick was expertly controlled by Michael Bridges, who promptly slotted it home for the opening goal in the League Cup fourth round fixture at Goodison Park.
Nearly twenty years since he last played for us, the Great Dane remains the benchmark.
A virtually impenetrable defence
The arrival of Paul Butler from Bury in the summer of 1998 was a noteworthy transfer.
He added some genuine toughness to what was already a very solid defence, and following Richard Ord’s departure, he would establish himself as an automatic selection when fit. He was also never shy about getting forward, and was often a threat from set-pieces.
With Butler and Andy Melville forming a solid central defensive partnership, the full-back positions were covered with the quality of Michael Gray, Martin Scott (also a reliable penalty taker), Chris Makin (probably one of the hardest and most no-nonsense players in the squad) and Darren Williams.
There was genuine quality everywhere you looked, and it offered Peter Reid the ability to rotate and rest players when necessary. Indeed, such squad depth is something we could certainly look to replicate this summer, to provide Alex Neil with the same luxury next season.
Gray in particular was always a threat going forward, and could whip accurate crosses in, often whilst running at speed, whereas Makin, who was equally fond of bombing forward when the mood took him, could also ping accurate long balls forward for the likes of Quinn to control.
The end result was a mere twenty eight goals conceded in forty six league games, and a total of thirty clean sheets in all competitions.
Strength and skill in midfield
Sunderland’s engine room in 1998/1999 was blessed with an outrageous plethora of options.
Simply put, we had a bit of everything- physicality, guile, goal threats, and football intelligence by the bucketload, and it isn’t inaccurate to state that no midfield in the league could really compare.
On the flanks, Allan Johnston and Nicky Summerbee were virtually unplayable at times, and if they, or anyone else needed a rest, who else but the mercurial Martin Smith could step into the breach?
Johnston was a genuine two-footed winger who could cut inside and shoot (usually with incredible accuracy) or drag defenders wide before producing an accurate cross with either foot, and Summerbee, despite his uniquely languid approach to the game, possessed a scary ability to drop the ball on a sixpence nine times out of ten.
In the middle, you could take your pick from Alex Rae, Lee Clark, and Kevin Ball, three absolutely dominant figures who took no prisoners and could also break up the play, thread accurate passes, and keep everything anchored with ease. Gavin McCann’s arrival in November gave us even more depth, although he took some time to get up to speed.
Ball was an absolute colossus that season, and some of his performances were that of a man who was hellbent on leading us back to the top flight. Doubtless driven by the pain of the previous season, he made sure that everyone was fully focused during every game.
Rae and Clark were the perfect foil for Bally- two very skilful players, both with an eye for goal, and to this day, it still needles me that Clark left the club in such messy fashion, so influential had he been for us during his two seasons in red and white.
A frightening forward line
Phillips, Quinn, Dichio, Bridges.
Have we ever, at any time since, been blessed with such a quartet of strikers? I don’t think so.
In the twenty three years that have passed since that season, we have never really come close to replicating the firepower that those four lads provided during 1998/1999, and it was thanks to Reid’s smart management, and a supply line that was always plentiful, that we rattled in an incredible total of ninety one league goals.
When Phillips suffered a serious foot injury in the autumn of 1998- an injury that would sideline him for four months, it fell to his fellow strikers to provide the goals and ensure that the promotion bid would not be, and they did so with aplomb, as Oxford were crushed 7-0 in the next game, to set a very definite tone for what lay ahead.
What I particularly loved about our striking options at this time was the fact that they all offered something a little bit different.
Dichio was a deceptively prolific striker with a knack for being in the right place at the right time; Bridges was outrageously skilful and could conjure goals from very little, Quinn was equally dominant in the air and on the deck, and Phillips could essentially do it all.
Watch the official season review from 1998/1999, and you’ll see exactly how regularly, and in how many different ways, we hit the back of the net. Many of the goals are all-time Sunderland classics, and they still have the ability to take the breath away, even after all these years.
Swagger, style, and a never-say-die spirit
In the aftermath of the heartbreaking playoff final defeat to Charlton, Quinn memorably declared that Sunderland were the ‘best footballing side in the league’ and that they would ‘prove it next season’.
One year later, his prediction had come true, and then some.
Some of the football we played during 1998/1999 was breathtaking at times, and we had the ability to take teams apart when the mood took us. Whether at home or away, there was a relentless determination to play front-foot, positive football wherever possible, and to ensure that teams did not outmatch us physically.
An ability to dig out late equalisers and winners was also a hallmark of the team- think of Kevin Ball’s swivel-and-volley to beat West Brom, and Niall Quinn’s last gasp goals against QPR and Wolves, for example. Team spirit, as Simon O’Rourke memorably noted, was unshakeable.
Peter Reid was in his element by this point, having put together a fearsomely competitive and exciting team, and even in January 1999, when our form dipped somewhat, he never lost faith that his men would eventually pull through and deliver the prize that we all craved.
On the great man’s 66th birthday, it feels absolutely fitting that we should celebrate his achievement from that glorious season. Thanks for the memories, boss!