Can you have a relegation six-pointer before the end of September? In retrospect Sunderland’s game against Coventry City at Roker Park at the beginning of our first term in the reformed English top flight might qualify, although at the time it was the visitors who were really struggling while we sat in mid-table.
Sunderland had managed a magnificent 4-1 victory away at Nottingham Forest and three goalless draws, including away at Anfield, we came into our fourth home game of the season looking to send the loyal fans home with a Premiership win for the first time.
A week earlier, an ill-tempered away loss to Derby County at the old Baseball Ground had seen Dickie Ord sent off for picking up two yellow cards in the space of five first half minutes, but Peter Reid named an unchanged starting line-up for this 3pm Saturday afternoon kickoff in front of almost 20,000 on Wearside. It was blood and thunder stuff, the kind of game we rarely see these days outside League 1.
Yet Sunderland played some good stuff and almost took the lead early on, Niall Quinn interchanging positions with Steve Agnew on the right, the winger robbing Steve Burrows of the ball and laying it off to Quinn to cross into the box, the ball was half cleared as far as Paul Bracewell whose low shot was parried by Steve Ogrizovic.
Coventry couldn’t clear their lines and Quinn took on Burrows again inside the box on the right, beat him and was hauled down for what should have been a penalty. The ref waved away the appeals despite the howls from the Sunderland faithful in the Roker End.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in our ill-fated season then came on 35 minutes when Niall Quinn was fouled on the right by Liam Daish, fell to the ground, and immediately signalled to the bench that he wouldn’t be able to continue. The challenge seemed innocuous enough, the defender hooking Quinny’s leg from behind, yet it earned Quinn’s Republic of Ireland teammate a yellow card and the big striker was stretchered from the pitch.
Quinn, who had recovered from a knock to his ankle to make this game, was replaced by Craig Russell, whose goals had won us an unexpected promotion earlier in the years, and it was 0-0 at half time.
And it was Russell whose excellent cross from the left of the area to the edge of the box a few minutes after the restart found Agnew, and he controlled the ball, allowing it to bounce before volleying beautifully with his left foot into the top corner in front of an ecstatic Fulwell End.
Agnew was full of praise for Russell in the post-match interviews, and the young local forward himself spoke of how he had studied the likes of Alan Shearer and Robbie Fowler when observing from the bench in the opening rounds of fixtures. Peter Reid picked out the “magnificent” Paul Stewart as the standout player, and his energetic performance won him the Man of the Match award.
Colin Diball’s report in the Sunday Mirror summarised our solid start to the season well:
Sunderland are functional rather than inspired but they proved again that they’re tough to beat. And if they continue nicking points like this they’ll carry on surprising the pundits.
When asked about his injury and prospects of playing in the World Cup qualifiers by The Irish Times, Quinn was optimistic, despite having suffered a similar problem with the opposite knee three years earlier:
It’s the same as last time. My studs got caught in the turf and I went one way while the knee went the other. One paper said Daishy was involved but it was all my own work. All sorts of dark thoughts flashed through my head at the time I thought to myself ‘oh, no not again’.
But the Sunderland physios reckon it’s not as serious as the one before. I feel that way myself. Even though I was very stiff this morning, the knee has loosened up during the day. I can’t put a date on it when I will be back playing again. I’ll have to wait for the results of the scan but it doesn't t look too encouraging for the Macedonia game at this stage.
However, the early optimism about his prospects was misplaced. The knee ligament injury required surgery in November and the loss our club record transfer, an international striker with loads of top-flight experience, as well as ‘keeper Tony Coton a month later, was a devastating blow to our hopes of avoiding a relegation struggle.
Although ruled out for the season, Quinn returned in the 3-0 home victory over Everton in the penultimate fixture of the season, by which time we were scrambling for enough points to rise above Coventry and out of the relegation places. It came too late; we lost away at Wimbledon on the final day, Coventry won away at Spurs, and the rest is history.