Sunderland returned to the Premiership in 1999 full of hope having just blown away Division One, but a heavy opening day loss at Chelsea had proven to be a rude awakening.
The Lads bounced back with three points against fellow promoted club Watford, but it was 23 years ago today in their third fixture that they showed themselves capable of really mixing with the big boys.
Arsenal had finished the previous season a point and a place above Chelsea, and after four tetchy league and cup meetings when Sunderland were last in the top-flight their first visit to the Stadium of Light represented a real test for a club looking to this time establish itself amongst the elite.
In a bid to tighten up then, Peter Reid elected to leave former Gunner Niall Quinn on the bench and replaced him with Kevin Ball to help form a five man midfield designed to smother the visitors.
It was a bit of a departure from the swashbuckling style supporters had grown used to over the last couple of years, but the plan worked a treat.
Ball received an early yellow card but was otherwise flawless, tackling and harrying Arsene Wenger’s stars and making the likes of Kanu and Dennis Bergkamp look second rate.
He was ably supported too by new recruit Stefan Schwarz, another former Arsenal man, but this wasn’t just a case of parking the bus – the team had a good balance to them, with Alex Rae making several incisive forward passes when it looked to break.
There was even a late save from Alex Manninger to deny substitute Quinn what would have been a dramatic winner.
Seeing the points shared was a fair result however, yet it would have been wrong for anybody checking up on the full time classifieds to see the 0-0 score line and simply write the game off as a bore draw.
Sunderland had realised that they couldn’t come out all guns blazing of course, but they’d still given Arsenal a game and had matched them for quality.
This was a squad after all that included debutant Thomas Helmer – a German international that Reid soon decided was no better than what he already had despite him winning a string of major honours during his career.
Confidence restored then, the group went on to achieve several other notable results in 1999-00, not least when they gained revenge over Chelsea later in the campaign in a game that was won 4-1 and is still fondly remembered on Wearside.
That might not have been possible had Sunderland not earned such an encouraging point on this day though, when their only goalless draw of the season set them up to bridge the gap between the second and first tiers.
Saturday 14 August 1999
Sunderland: Sorensen: Makin, Bould (Helmer 54), Butler, Gray: Summerbee, Rae, Ball, Schwarz, Oster (McCann 46); Phillips (Quinn 78). Unused: Marriott, Holloway
Stadium of Light, attendance 41, 680