Bury were familiar guests during the early days of the Stadium of Light, becoming the first club to visit the ground for a cup tie and then returning in the spring of its opening season for a league fixture. The Shakers then made the trip back to Wearside a third of the way into the 1998-99 campaign as well, meaning that on this day they became the first away team to play at the ground on three occasions.
For a while, it did look as if their journey may have been wasted, with much-loved groundsman Tommy Porter having to refresh the pitch markings five times in the build-up to kick off due to them being continuously washed away by torrential rain. Although it was decided that the game could go ahead, the weather and conditions underfoot meant the spectacle was far from pretty.
But this was a Sunderland team that had plenty about them and they were showing themselves capable of grinding out results no matter what the situation.
No-nonsense former Bury defender Paul Butler, a summer arrival from Gigg Lane, had been a crucial purchase in the eyes of manager Peter Reid. Once they’d clicked after leaving Roker Park the Lads had been irresistible going forward, but Butler had helped bring a much-needed level of sturdiness to the back line that meant the team could now keep it tight when needed and were able to stand up to physical bombardments. That was certainly the case against his former teammates, who were scrapping for points at the bottom end of the table but had been given the perfect blueprint to follow earlier in the month.
With Butler helping contribute towards what would become a club-record total of clean sheets for a season, sides knew their best chance of coming away from Sunderland with anything would be shutting up shop at the other end. Oxford United had failed miserably on that front in September, but following their 7-0 demolition the next fixture at the SoL saw Bradford City hold out for a goalless draw - and the more the Bury match went on, the more it felt like a repeat was going to transpire.
Reid, however, had told his men to remain patient against Neil Warnock’s well-drilled outfit, and they finally nudged themselves ahead with a little over ten minutes remaining. It was a simple enough goal – Michael Gray angling the ball into the box and substitute Danny Dichio heading it in – but it counted for a lot. Dichio’s impact underlined the strength in depth at Sunderland, with the forward coming on for Michael Bridges as the pair continued to fill the void caused by a long-term injury to Kevin Phillips, and it also saw their unbeaten league start click over to 14. This equalled another club record, set in 1910-11, as the Lads continued their relentless march.
Back top of Division One again, having temporarily slipped to second after the Bradford game, there was to be no catching Sunderland this time. Come the end of the season and with the championship confirmed, Kevin Ball would be presented with the Football League trophy; the skipper being another important factor in the charge, having made his 300th appearance for the Black Cats against Bury.
This was a famous period in SAFC history during which supporters turned up to matches confident of victory – the only question being by how many. The side did, at points, need to dig in, though, and against a Bury side determined not to lie down, they showed the ruthless streak that was needed. The two previous meetings at the stadium had been tight encounters and this was no different – although there was one man that seemed to take it all in his stride.
Assistant Manager Bobby Saxton cut a surprisingly relaxed figure on the touchline even in the final few nervy minutes when the visitors were pumping the ball into the danger area, going so far as turning away to have a quick chat with a nearby supporter. It was a situation a confused Reid noticed and later discussed in his autobiography; noting that the ever-popular Saxton was usually as animated as he was, the boss revealed in his book that it turned out his deputy had mistakenly thought Sunderland were 2-0 up and were in cruise control!
Not realising that a Niall Quinn effort had actually been chalked off by the officials, he was presumably bemused by Reid’s post-match pep talk with the players about how thrilled he was at them knuckling down and showing plenty of desire as they hung on. It was only in the player’s lounge afterwards when he saw the actual full-time score on the television that Saxton cottoned onto what had happened. But, then again, Sunderland were that good during this period that he wouldn’t have been the only one to lose count on occasion.
Promotion was secured in the return in April 1999 when Sunderland’s more flowing capabilities were able to come to the fore, and despite their early role as regulars, Bury are still to add to their tally of Stadium of Light showings.
Saturday 24 October 1998
Football League Division One
Sunderland 1 (Dichio 79’)
Sunderland: Sorensen; Makin, Melville, Butler, Gray; Summerbee, Ball, Rae, Johnston; Quinn, Bridge (Dichio 66’). Unused: Craddock, Mullin
Stadium of Light, attendance 38,049