Thomas Sorensen’s arrival at Sunderland had solved what had become a bit of a problem position for us over a few seasons.
Peter Reid was never truly enamoured with Alec Chamberlain, who he’d inherited when taking over at Roker Park in 1995. Tony Norman’s Sunderland career was coming to an end, and Reid tried in vain to sign the American keeper Brad Friedel, only for work permit issues to put paid to that one after the player – who’d go on to make more than 400 appearances in the echelons of English football.
Chamberlain was displaced by untested Blackburn youngster Shay Given midway through Reid’s first season and impressed so much in the surge to the title that seven-figure summer bids were made but subsequently turned down by Rovers.
With an out-of-contract Chamberlain joining Watford, the only keepers on Sunderland’s books were youngsters Phil Naisbett and David Preece, and in need of two senior keepers Reid turned to the experienced Tony Coton and the Frenchman Lionel Perez, after a move for the Romanian keeper Bogdan Stelea again fell at the work permit stage.
The 35-year-old Coton was coming to the tailend of a very good career – he was one of a handful of excellent English keepers around at the time who’d been unfortunate to be playing at the same time as Shilton, Clemence, Woods and Seaman, and didn’t get a look in internationally. Still, an experienced top-flight keeper, backed up by a presumably cost-effective Frenchman, seemed to be a pretty good solution.
It was a solution that only lasted 11 and a bit games, of course. A broken leg at Southampton on his 11th game for the club saw Coton’s career brought to an abrupt halt, and we went from keeping six clean sheets in 11 games to keeping just seven in the 31 that followed.
The ‘flamboyant’ Perez took over the keeper’s job and, while he could pull off some spectacular saves, his baseline ability was, well, lacking. Any low shot across him seemed to go in, and he wasn’t particularly dominant in the penalty box.
Former England keeper Chris Woods arrived to provide some experienced backup, but never saw any competitive action – although he did play in the final game at Roker.
Woods left, and Reid signed Edwin Zoetebier with the intention of the highly rated 27-year-old Dutchman taking the number one jersey; ‘Zoots’ however made only two league cup appearances, (in the process becoming our first-ever player whose name began with Z – we’ve had one more since - can you name him?) and he departed at the end of that season.
Perez was first choice throughout the first campaign at the Stadium of Light, and while the team came close to promotion, it pretty much came down goalkeeping deficiencies being the difference between going up or not. Lionel’s wander down Wembley Way still has some of us waking up in a cold sweat, and that was his final action in a Sunderland shirt – bizarrely signing for Newcastle shortly afterwards.
So, back to square one, and finally, we got it right. The signing of Sorensen from OB was a masterstroke by Peter Reid – and, along with the additional central defensive strength of Paul Butler, proved all of the difference.
Predictably labelled the ‘new Peter Schmeichel’, the 22-year-old looked immediately commanding and steady – no fuss, just calm and in control – and grew in confidence as the season wore on, helping the club to the title during his first campaign.
Sorensen’s first season in English football proved to be Schmeichel’s last at Manchester United. Schmeichel – who himself had solved Alex Ferguson’s goalkeeping dilemmas at Old Trafford, after the likes of Jim Leighton, Gary Walsh and Les Sealey had failed to replace England keeper Gary Bailey – had left Old Trafford at the end of the 98-99 season to join Sporting Lisbon, and at 36 was heading into the twilight of his career.
Sorensen was seen as his heir apparent, and the Sunderland keeper replaced Schemeicel on this day in 1999 to gain his first international cap in the second-leg playoff against Israel to reach Euro 2000.
With the tie over after a 5-0 win in Tel Aviv, Schmeichel departed the field on 18 minutes to give Sorensen his long-awaited international bow.
The Danes won 3-0, with Sorensen having a comfortable night – although he’d have to wait another 18 months or so before Schmeichel retired and he could rightfully claim the number one jersey for himself.
Sorensen – who by this time was understudied at Sunderland by Andy Marriott – went on to play 101 times for Denmark; and it all started on this day 24 years ago.