Michael Gray’s international career saw him break a long-standing club record, twenty three years ago today.
Earlier in the season, both he and teammate Kevin Phillips had already become the first players outside of the top flight to earn England caps in five years, and as he took to the pitch on this day in 1999, he became the first Sunderland player to represent the Three Lions at Wembley since Tony Towers in 1976.
The duo had debuted in a friendly played in Budapest against Hungary in late April- their call-ups being just reward for some impressive domestic form en-route to the First Division title.
Whilst Phillips had already played for the England B team a year earlier, this was the first international recognition earned by Gray at any level, despite him being a talented prospect when progressing through the ranks and becoming a first team regular at Roker Park as a teenager.
England boss Kevin Keegan, who at this point had only been in the job for a couple of months himself, was obviously a fan, however, and brought Gray back for that summer’s European Championship qualifiers.
First up in the double-header were Sweden, who topped Group Five and were expected to provide tough opposition, despite being away from home. That proved to be the case, and the first half saw both sides go for it in every sense. There were chances at both ends, but it was a fiery encounter with several hefty tackles, not least from Paul Scholes.
The game was evenly poised until another lunge saw the Manchester United man dismissed early into the second half. By that point, Gray had been introduced as a substitute for the unwell Graeme Le Saux, and was initially tasked with bombing up and down the wing like he did club level.
Being reduced to ten men saw the instructions change however, and so the Wearsider had to stick to a more defensive role instead.
With Gray performing well alongside the rest of the back four, England managed to hold out for a draw. It was an encouraging result therefore, although it did little for their chances of automatic qualification and in the end, Sweden finished up winning the group comfortably.
Playing for them in London on this day were both Stefan Schwarz, who would join Gray at Sunderland shortly thereafter, and another future Stadium of Light teammate in Joachim Bjorklund.
The only other Sunderland man to play for England’s senior side since Towers had been Nick Pickering, who had earned a cap by playing in Melbourne against Australia, back in 1983.
Just like Gray, Pickering was a local lad and a versatile performer, but he didn’t play for the national side again. Gray however did feature one more time, starting the next match in Bulgaria and playing the full ninety minutes. This time he was able to play a more natural game, but he was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing 1-1 draw.
In Sofia, it was England that were playing against ten men when the hosts received a red card with half an hour to go. They struggled to break down the Bulgarians, however, and Keegan started relying upon more established players from that point on.
Gray was called up for a handful of other squads, but it was Le Saux, and the returning Stuart Pearce that became the preferred options for the left back slot.
England did reach Euro 2000 in the end, albeit via a playoff with Scotland, whereas Gray was left to focus on what would be an enduring club career.
Saturday 5th June 1999
UEFA Euro 2000 Group Five Qualifier
England: Seaman, Neville, Le Saux; Sherwood, Keown, Campbell; Beckham, Batty, Shearer; Cole, Scholes.
Subs: Gray, Ferdinand, Redknapp, Parlour, Sheringham, Fowler, Walker.
Wembley Stadium, London. Attendance: 75,824.