The title-winning season of Peter Reid’s first full season in charge of the club was a real slow burner.
We didn’t really know what to expect following the close shave with relegation the season before, predictions ranged from same again, consolidation and Neil Warnock’s pre-season prediction that we would be promoted.
It was clear to everyone the lift that Peter Reid initially gave that set of players, with a clearly improvement in performances and results that was seen almost on day one, but a summer of anticipation came and went with very little change in personnel.
With Reid’s contacts we were linked with a few of his former teammates, including Chris Waddle, but the only one to arrive of that sort of pedigree was a familiar face when Paul Bracewell joined the ranks as player/assistant manager. Other than that, only John Mullin arrived from Burnley who had any hopes of first team action.
This meant nobody had any clue where expectations were at and it was more of a case that we didn’t want any more concerns of dropping to the third tier, which ended up being the focus of the previous three seasons.
Our opening day defeat to Mark McGhee’s much fancied Leicester City, did enough to provide optimism we’d be okay and by mid-September, it was steady going as we sat 15th in the table with two wins in the first seven.
We then went on a run of one defeat in 13 games and following the now infamous 6-0 win over Millwall in mid-December we went top of the league, but Sunderland being Sunderland, we backed it up with one win in the next nine.
Our season seemed to be a continuous sine wave, but ahead of the visit of George Burley’s Ipswich to Roker Park we had managed to scrape a 2-2 draw at Portsmouth via Lee Howey’s last minute goal. Peter Reid often referred to the importance of this goal as it was the eleventh game without a win, but we managed to get something out of a game that we went behind in the 86th minute.
Three days later, George Burley’s play-off chasing Ipswich Town rolled into town with the Lads being boosted by Howey’s last-gasp goal at the weekend and also the return to action of Richard Ord, who slotted back into the back four alongside Andy Melville, that meant Lee Howey was pushed up top alongside Craig Russell.
On a pitch that looked more like a sand pit than turf, it was Ipswich who looked more likely to score in the opening period of the game, with Shay Given pulling off a couple of incredible saves from Mick Stockwell and Steve Sedgley in the opening half an hour.
Then seven minutes before the break, Peter Reid’s side utilised the big-man-little-man combination up top when Paul Bracewell volleyed a high looping ball into the Ipswich half as we were a bit under the cosh.
It was Lee Howey who had managed to gauge the flight of the ball better than our current manager Tony Mowbray, which resulted in a flick-on from the former Ipswich Town striker straight into the path of his partner Craig Russell, who took a couple of touches to entice Richard Wright into coming out before sliding under the keeper and into the net.
The rest of the game was fairly forgettable, but the significance of the goal can be viewed by the fact it was the beginning of a nine game winning run, that took us to the top of the league where we remained for the rest of the season to reach the Premier League for the first time since it was introduced.
Tuesday 20th February, 1996
Endsleigh League Division One
Sunderland 1-0 Ipswich Town
Sunderland: Given, Kubicki, Ord, Howey, Hall, M. Gray, Bracewell, Ball, Cooke, Howey, Russell Substitutes not used: P. Gray, Mullin, Aiston
Ipswich Town: Wright, Uhlenbeek, Taricco, Thomsen, Mowbray (Vaughan), Stockwell, Mason, Sedgley, Scowcroft, Marshall (Slater), Mills Substitute not used: Gregory