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Ruud Gullit was a global superstar, and his arrival in English football was pivotal in establishing the Premier League – or the Premiership, as it was then known – as ‘the best league in the world™’.
With English clubs having been banned from European football due to hooliganism and the three foreigners rule, the world’s top players didn’t come to play in England. That all changed, however, with the advent of the Premiership – and Gullit’s arrival, along with the likes of Zola, Bergkamp and others, heralded the beginning of the top-flight English football with which we are all now familiar.
Gullit was a familiar face to English fans, however, starring for the Dutch in Euro 88, and had been a key part of AC Milan’s Dutch-inspired team that had garnered a lot of interest among English football fans thanks to Gazzetta Football Italia, which had proved a very popular addition to fans’ weekend viewing.
Gullit had arrived in England in the summer of 1995, originally as a player under Glenn Hoddle, and starred in the top flight in his debut season – finishing runner-up to Eric Cantona as player of the season. In the summer of 1996, however, Glenn Hoddle was appointed England manager to replace Terry Venables after his post-Euro 96 departure, and Gullit was named his Stamford Bridge replacement.
Hoddle had originally been player/manager at Chelsea; it was a set-up that was particularly en-vogue at the time, and Gullit was appointed similarly.
While the top flight was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, up in Sunderland we had a primarily British team, with only French keeper Lionel Perez and Polish fullback Dariusz Kubicki adding some foreign flavour.
During Peter Reid’s first full season in charge, we’d won the second-tier championship, and were tackling the top flight head on.
However, our two major summer signings – Tony Coton and Niall Quinn – had suffered serious injuries; practically season-ending for Quinn, and career-ending in Coton’s case.
So, it was something of a culture clash when Reidy’s team lined up against the Pensioners, with 14th-placed Sunderland in need of three points after a disappointing 3-1 home reverse to Wimbledon.
Gullit lined up for Chelsea, alongside the likes of Zola and Dennis Wise, while Roberto di Matteo was named on the bench.
For Sunderland, Craig Russell was named up front, while Michael Gray was brought back into the team to replace Martin Smith, who dropped to the bench.
It was the 4pm Sky game, and the atmosphere at Roker was good – a few pints beforehand, and a good challenge against the Premiership’s most ‘trendy’ team.
And it was a game to remember, as the lads turned in probably our best performance of the season.
A first-half own goal from Michael Duberry opened the scoring for the lads – Russell’s shot from outside the box deflecting off Duberry’s hip and over Frode Grodas.
Attacking the Fulwell End in the second half, the lads simply overpowered a Chelsea team that just didn’t seem to fancy it.
Just after half time, a beautiful cross from Michael Gray was met by a diving Kevin Ball, who powered a header home, while on 66 minutes, Russell got on the scoresheet officially when a beautiful reverse pass from David Kelly was cooly placed past Grodas.
It was a big statement from Reidy’s team, and one that gave everyone some hope that we’d be able to avoid getting dragged into relegation trouble as the winter drew on.