Peter Reid bowled into Sunderland with only seven games remaining of the 1994-95 season with the club in a complete mess. After taking charge, following the dismissal of Mick Buxton, we faced Sheffield United at a tired-looking Roker Park on the 1st April 1995 on a run of one win in seven looking destined for relegation.
If that wasn’t enough, the club had just panicked at the end of the transfer deadline and spent pretty much every penny we had on Brett Angell for around £600,000 from Everton.
On top of that, we had also brought in Dominic Matteo on loan from Liverpool and after his debut ended in a defeat at Barnsley, spelling the end of the Buxton era, it was announced that the club was under investigation due to the fact that Matteo had not been registered correctly.
Angell had also made his Sunderland bow at Oakwell and had been ineffective in the 2-0 defeat, but where he had remained at Roker, Matteo returned to Anfield immediately and although the Football Association were ultimately lenient with the club’s error, there was a fear of being docked points for a number of weeks.
Fast forward to just over four years later, we’d won a Division One title, been relegated from the Premier League, missed out at Wembley in the play-off final after collecting 90 points, won another Division One title with 105 points and moved to a new stadium that held around 42,000.
It was some four years.
This all meant that in the summer of 1999 we prepared for our second crack at the Premier League, but this time it felt different. The impact of moving to the Stadium of Light combined with the side that Reid was building, created a feeling that we wouldn’t just be there to make up the numbers.
There was also optimism around who Reid might add to the squad on the back of a record-breaking title-winning season. To put it into context the strength of the squad, Michael Bridges, who was considered as a backup striker behind Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn and had only started 13 times in the league during 1998-99, was a target for David O’Leary’s Leeds United who were about to offer huge sums for the 21-year-old.
As usual, the rumour mill was in overdrive, but on this day back in 1999, Mark McGuinness in the Daily Mirror reported that Sunderland were lining up two potentially huge signings. The first target was Argentinian World Cup star Ariel Ortega, who was with Italian club Sampdoria at the time, with Reid confirming interest without giving much away:
Contact has been made, although no bid has been lodged.
We apparently faced tough competition to secure his signature, which was thought would require a bid of around £11 million, with Parma, Barcelona and Manchester United all tracking Ortega’s signature - but considering four years earlier Brett Angell was considered a major signing, it was progress.
A year earlier, Ortega’s World Cup had ended with a red card for headbutting Edwin Van Der Sar, which perhaps caught Reid’s attention, and in the same summer had moved to Sampdoria from Valencia - but following the Italian club's relegation, was looking for a move.
The other target was Manchester United’s Nicky Butt and was rumoured to be preparing an offer in the region of £7million.
Following United’s treble-winning season the year before, Sir Alex Ferguson was fully aware that he required a large squad with participation in the World Club Championship on the scheduled, but the £40million invested in a redevelopment of Old Trafford had to come from somewhere. The other potential aspect of the deal for Butt was Reid dangling Michael Bridges as an option to go in the opposite direction as part of the deal.
In other news reported on this day in 1999, Sunderland had announced that a record of 36,000 season tickets had been snapped up ahead of the Stadium of Light’s first season hosting Premier League football. The figure would remain at 36,000 as the club wanted to leave the rest for fans who attended individual games.
In non-Sunderland related news on this day back in 1999, Aston Villa’s John Gregory was lining up a £6million move for West Ham United’s Frank Lampard, the mags issued a ‘hands-off’ warning after Dieter Hamann had expressed claims he wanted to move to Arsenal, who themselves had made an official complaint into the conduct of Real Madrid who were targeting Nicolas Anelka.