The 30th anniversary of the Premier League was marked recently, but at the time Sunderland fans had to look on from afar with envious eyes.
The glitz and the glamour of the new breakaway league had certainly caught the imagination of millions of football fans, but for a good while it seemed as if the game was moving on and the Lads were being left behind.
That was of course until Peter Reid’s Roker Park revolution, when suddenly everything changed.
After an unexpected promotion in 1995-96 Sunderland were back in the big time and, once on board, they didn’t have to wait long for their first win in what had since been renamed the Premiership.
The new season had started with a draw against fellow new boys Leicester City, but on this day in 1996 came a trip to the City Ground in which Reid’s men firmly announced their long awaited arrival.
Hosts Nottingham Forest had been one of the founder members of the new look top-flight only to be relegated in its inaugural campaign.
They’d made a swift return in 1993-94 however when in their final fixture Mick Buxton’s side were uneasy attendees at a promotion celebration – the Lads dampened the mood slightly when fighting back to earn a point, but whilst it was an encouraging performance the gulf between the clubs at that point was painfully apparent.
Finishing 18 points ahead of their party poopers and about to embark on ambitious ground renovations, Forest exemplified what could be achieved with the riches that came with Premier prestige. They then went on to achieve two highly commendable top half finishes, but by the time of the next meeting Sunderland had started closing the gap – their own stadium plans were in full swing whilst on the pitch they proved themselves more than a match.
Any fears of a long night against their lofty opponents were soon put to bed when Michael Gray scored Sunderland’s first Premiership goal early in the match, after he’d collected the ball in midfield and hit a long range effort that bounced in front of Mark Crossley and went in. The lead was quickly doubled too, with Gray involved once more – playing a through pass that caused havoc in the Forest defence and allowed Kevin Ball to steam in and hurry a clearance that bounced off Niall Quinn and into the net for his first for the club.
There had been an element of fortune with the goal, but you could argue that Sunderland had made their own luck through hard work and endeavour. They continued to press after that too, and although Forest managed to reduce the arrears any hopes of a comeback were quickly extinguished. Alf-Inge Haaland’s close range rebound following a Stuart Pearce thunderbolt had given Forest some brief hope, but moments later Sunderland went up the other end and saw Quinn get a brace.
His second was a much more conventional finish, putting a superb header past Crossley after Paul Bracewell had floated the ball into the box. The Lads were not done there either, as just before half time Dickie Ord powered in another superb header when he rose highest to meet a Martin Scott corner. It gave Sunderland a commanding lead, and from that point they cruised to their first Premiership win.
It was an impressive performance that caught the eye of home manager Frank Clark, who had started his coaching career as an assistant to Ken Knighton at Sunderland. Having been involved in his own Roker promotion during that spell, he was fulsome in his praise for the Lads after the final whistle. Two of his squad that night meanwhile would go on to have their own connections with the club – defender Colin Cooper later had a loan spell at his boyhood side whilst goalkeeper Alan Fettis would become part of the backroom staff from 2009. Unused in 1996, he also took up a spot on the bench in 2009 when injuries forced him to act as an emergency sub for a pre-season game at Celtic.
That fixture ended in another win, but this one had meant much more – it was a statement victory, and for a long time afterward it seemed like the team would become a permanent Premier fixture. They even finished above Nottingham Forest, but that proved to be of cold comfort once the spectre of relegation crept up late in the day. Despite the four strikes against the Tricky Trees the goals would eventually dry up, but even though the first sojourn into the division only lasted a year it gave everybody connected with the club a taste of what they’d been missing. It also gave Reid an idea of what was needed, and when he engineered a return in 1999 he was able to finally establish Sunderland as a premium entity.
Yesterday’s On This Day piece featured a win at Barnsley in 1991 in which Sunderland debuted their new white Hummel change kit on their first away game since joining a new division. There was a similar story at Forest, who hosted our maiden trip in a new league as we again saw the first competitive action for another white top, this time made by local firm Avec. In both instances the Rokerites won by comfortable three goals margins, the Trent witnessing an important milestone as we did so. When our next Premiership success will be however, we don’t know, and whilst during our last spell there the aura and mystique had started to wear off somewhat a return has to remain the long term aim.
Wednesday 21 August 1996
Nottingham Forest 1 (Haaland 27)
Sunderland 4 (Gray 8, Quinn 17, 31, Ord 43)
Sunderland: Coton; Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott; Gray, Bracewell, Ball, Agnew; Stewart (Russell 79), Quinn (Bridges 88). Unused: Perez, Aiston, Hall
City Ground, attendance 22,874