I know we often repeat this sentiment doing these features, but how can this be almost a quarter of a century ago? It seems like yesterday.
Back in the last year of the previous millennium (see, that makes it sound a long time ago, doesn’t it?), Peter Reid and Martin O’Neill were two of the hottest managers around. Their reputations were growing by the week – O’Neill having got Leicester promoted at the first attempt, and establishing the club in the top flight with strong midtable finishes, as well as winning the League Cup in 1997.
Reidy hadn’t had enjoyed as much success – after getting us promoted in 96 we’d gone straight back down, albeit with a good old fight. Injuries to summer signings Tony Coton and Niall Quinn proved decisive.
But the Charlton playoff final and the form of the previously unknown Kevin Phillips had elevated Sunderland back into people’s consciousness – and Reidy’s stock was rising, as was his team’s.
After the disappointment of Wembley, Sunderland turned up for the 1998-99 season with an incredible determination not to suffer the same fate again. Tommy Sorensen had replaced Mr Walkabout in goal, and Pies had been put on the menu of the back four.
Lee Clark had had a stunningly good first season with the club, and not even an opening day broken leg to the talented playmaker – and a serious injury in a League Cup game against Chester early in the season – could knock the lads off their stride.
Clarky had made a comeback in the League Cup game at Goodison in November, when we knocked Everton out on penalties – a quarter-final home tie against Luton was our reward.
We overcame a Hatters team featuring Phil Gray and Kelvin Davis 3-0 – an own goal and one each from Micky Bridges and Niall Quinn deciding the game – and earned a semi final place alongside Premier League teams Leicester, Spurs and Wimbledon.
Drawn against Martin O’Neill’s Leicester, we disappointingly lost the home leg 2-1 – two Tony Cottee goals putting the Foxes two up, before Gavin McCann pulled one back to give us hope for a second leg fightback.
It was a disappointing night at the Stadium of Light. A good crowd of almost 40,000 turned up and, sitting comfortably top of the table, everyone expected a better performance from the lads. The frustration that we handed Leicester the game was palpable – I remember Kevin Ball and Lee Clark almost coming to blows over the taking of a free kick – and an away defeat to Watford a few days after didn’t do much to improve the mood.
Still, we were a bloody good team, and quickly got back to it – wins over Swindon and Bristol City restored confidence, and we headed to Leicester knowing we had more than a fighting chance.
In the first half we took the game to Leicester and turned in a superb display. We eventually scored after the half-hour mark; Niall Quinn heading home a Lee Clark cross past Don Goodman’s mate Kasey Keller, and at the interval the lads went in with a one-goal lead, meaning the game was tied over the two legs.
Sunderland’s display forced Martin O’Neill into a half-time reshuffle, moving to a 4-4-2 formation to match us up and everyone’s favourite gobshite Robbie Savage replacing Nothern Irishman Gerry Taggart.
The second half brought about a more even contest, and Tony Cottee equalised shortly after the break – nipping in to poke a Neil Lennon pass wide of Sorensen.
Sunderland kept on going in an attempt to level the tie once more, and we thought Quinny had done it again in the dying moments, only for Keller to produce a brilliant save to send Leicester through.
On the day that Kevin Keegan was appointed part-time England manager, Martin O’Neill had come out on top in his battle with Reidy – but was full of praise for his boyhood team.
They played us off the pith in the first half and showed they are ready to enter the Premiership. But we got at them after finally rousing ourselves.
After the disappointment of the first leg, Reidy was delighted at how his team acquitted themselves - if not the result.
I knew it was going to be very, very difficult, nut I’ve got to say I thought my players handled it extremely well.
I thought we played some great stuff. I think their keeper was the busier and we didn’t get the breaks.
I’m delighted with my players and it proves how well we played that Leicester changed their formation in the second half.
We passed it very well without getting a lot of joy, and they just tried to stop us playing.
Leicester’s reward was a final against George Graham’s Spurs, who had beaten Wimbledon over two legs. Sunderland, meanwhile, were left to concentrate on the league...