While Sunderland stormed to a record points second-tier title in 1999, up the road things weren’t going too well. The latest messiah, Ruud Gullit, had arrived to much fanfare, back-slapping and proclamations, but in truth, from the outside looking in, he never seemed quite right.
Not least because you couldn’t imagine him necking 10 pints of Brown Ale, stuffing down a Greggs or two, and wiping gravy from his dreadlocks.
Still, he was a global name, and had done a good job at Chelsea, and had left Stamford Bridge after a fallout with Ken Bates – a tick in the minds of most right-thinking people.
Things didn’t go to plan at St James. Despite promises of sexy football, well-publicised fallings out with best friends Shearer and Lee suggested a power struggle that was only ever going to end one way.
Avoiding relegation by four points, Gullit was surprisingly retained for another crack, but by the time Sunderland rolled into town – sorry, toon – for the first derby of the season, things had reached breaking point at Sid James.
Which was good news for us. Because the momentum that had carried us to 105 points had looked a little shaky in the season’s opening weeks. An opening day defeat to Gullit’s former club Chelsea had been followed by a home win and draw against fellow promoted club Watford and Arsenal respectively, and an away defeat to Leeds, for whom our former striker Michael Bridges predictably starred.
One win in four wasn't a bad start to the season, but it wasn’t the form we’d witnessed for the 18 months prior, and there was concern that the lack of transfer activity was already coming back to bite us – only Stefan Schwarz and Steve Bould had come straight into the first team.
As we headed north on a rainy, rainy August evening, all the talk was of the damage Shearer – and striker partner Duncan Ferguson – were going to do to Sunderland. This was despite starting the season with three defeats and a 3-3 draw with Wimbledon. With typical mag bravado, radio predictions were of 3, 4 or 5 nil victories, with Shearer – who’d been red carded in the previous game (in those days suspensions didn’t kick in immediately) – having a field day.
So, when the team news was announced an hour before kick off, and Shearer and Ferguson had been left on the bench – and Sunderland season ticket holder Paul Robinson selected up front – it was clear Gullit was making the biggest of statements: back me, or him.
Of course, it was fantastic news for us. Regardless of whatever you think about the fella who booted Neil Lennon in the head and avoided disciplinary action so he could play in a World Cup, he was one of the world’s best strikers, and it seriously strengthened our hand by not having him to contend with.
And it all meant that the atmosphere in Sid James was far more hostile to their own than their visitors.
That mood temporarily at least turned early in the game though. Some pretty even opening exchanges saw chances at both ends, but it was the home team that took the lead – Robinson playing in Dyer, who lifted the ball above the on-rushing Sorensen.
Niall Quinn missed a couple of chances for the lads, as did Schwarz, which meant it was 1-0 to the home team at half time. However, Sunderland knew that an equaliser would see the home crowd turning quickly – and so it proved.
As the rain increased in its ferocity, and just after the hour mark, the lads got a deserved equaliser – Quinn heading home at the far post from Summerbee’s free kick.
Moments later, the home fans were revolting – what’s new? – and demands for Shearer’s introduction were finally met.
However, Shearer’s arrival only benefited Sunderland, because within minutes we were ahead.
The substitute’s only contribution was to take out his frustration on Sunderland midfielder Gavin McCann, who he left in a heap on halfway.
While McCann regained his senses, Summerbee drove down the right flank, and crossed the ball to Phillips – who, at the second attempt, scooped the ball over veteran keeper Tommy Wright to make it 2-1.
There was still plenty of drama. As the rain turned torrential, the ball could barely run on the field.
Sunderland’s captain Kevin Ball, coming on from the bench, managed to hit his own crossbar with a 30-yard tackle, the home players and fans begged referee Graham Poll to abandon the game but Poll and Sunderland held firm, and secured a valuable three points and north east bragging rights.
For Gullit, however, the end was nigh.