In the summer of 1999, we’d only been in our new home for two years and Peter Reid’s side had just swatted aside the First Division to return to the Premier League - all was good in the world of Sunderland AFC.
It was a fun time to follow the Lads - in those first two seasons at the Stadium of Light we had lost only 11 out of 92 league games and on home turf had lost only 3 out of 46.
The inaugural season in our shiny new stadium ended in heartbreak at Wembley, despite accumulating 90 points in the 46 game regulation season, but the squad were clearly determined to get it right second time around. Thomas Sorensen was brought in from OB Odense from around £1m and Paul Butler from Bury for around the same amount and that was all Reid needed to complete the jigsaw that would result in promotion.
The first league defeat came in the 19th game of the season at Barnsley, which was one of only three all season, 105 points were racked up, only ten goals conceded at home all season and 91 goals were scored in an unbelievable season. In most games it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t a case of asking if we would win, it was a case of wondering by how many we would win by.
A season like that, in some ways, makes it difficult to objectively judge how much to strengthen for the challenge of the top flight that lay ahead. Three years prior our lack of resources were telling despite Premier League survival still going to the wire at Selhurst Park.
However, as Reid wanted to build on his squad, the summer began with a series of high profile incidents that resulted in the squad becoming weaker. Lee Clark did his photoshoot outside of Wembley which meant he was off to Fulham and then Allan Johnston and Michael Bridges got on the wrong side of the manager in contract talks - which meant only one thing when it came to Peter Reid.
Bridges went to the snazzy high profile crèche that David O’Leary was setting up at Leeds United for around £5m and Johnston didn’t play another game for Sunderland, having spells at Birmingham City and Bolton Wanderers on-loan before moving to Rangers at the end of the season.
This wasn’t the plan and Reid clearly knew he wanted experience for the task ahead and brought in 35-year-old Thomas Helmer on a free transfer from Bayern Munich and 36-year-old Steve Bould from Arsenal for around £500,000.
This was followed by the marquee signing of the summer when 30-year-old tough tackling midfielder Stefan Schwarz was acquired for a club record £3.75m from Valencia - after this signing the excitement for the new season could begin once again.
First up was a tough trip to Stamford Bridge to take on Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea who in many quarters were tipped to challenge for the title after finishing 3rd behind Manchester United and Arsenal the previous season - ending up only four points behind Alex Ferguson’s champions.
They’d also spent big during the summer, with £10m being spent on convincing Blackburn Rovers to part with Chris Sutton - which resulted in one of the most high profile signings of the summer. A fee of £3m was also spent on bringing in Vialli’s former Juventus teammate Didier Deschamps after the Frenchman had spent five years with the La Vecchia Signora.
Only Bould was making his competitive debut for the Lads in the starting XI, with Helmer and Carsten Fredgaard on the bench, with Schwarz unavailable for selection. Reid also threw in a surprise with giving the nod on the left hand side of midfield to 19-year-old Chris Lumsdon.
The Newcastle-born midfielder had only started one league game for Sunderland which came way back in February 1998 and Lumsdon had also only made one substitute appearance in the whole of the previous season.
Chelsea were determined to get off to a solid start this time around as they had gone down to defeats by Coventry City in the previous two seasons on the opening day - but this time there wasn’t too much concern regarding the outcome. With just 20 minutes on the clock, the away side gifted Gus Poyet with a header from a corner after Sorensen charged out of his goal and was left in no mans land.
Reid’s side pushed forward, however, looking for an immediate response, but just over ten minutes later, one pass forward left Gianfranco Zola one on one with Bould and despite taking it wide finished brilliantly into the corner of the net going in off the post. We only had one person to thank that it was only 2-0 at the break and that was the most expensive player on the pitch.
Visibly nervous, £10m-rated Sutton fluffed his lines on multiple occasions when he seemed sure to open his Chelsea account, but ended up being replaced by future Sunderland striker Tore Andre Flo with around 20 minutes remaining - and within ten minutes, the Norwegian had scored.
A simple one-two on the edge of the box between Zola and Dan Petrescu gave the opportunity for the Romanian to cross the ball for Flo to nod home from close range. Then only a minute later, the icing was on the cake for the home side.
With Zola in possession on the edge of the box, Chris Makin and Butler went to close down the Italian, but before they could get close, he had spotted the run from deep of future Sunderland manager Poyet.
At this point, Zola scooped the ball over three Sunderland defenders to land perfectly in the path of Poyet around the penalty spot, where the Uruguayan spectacularly finished with a scissor-kick volley that flew past Sorensen and into the top corner. The finish was good but the vision from Zola was genius.
Reid’s side got away lightly as it ended 4-0, and in the stands watching was new record signing Stefan Schwarz - who at that point would have no doubt preferred to have been on the moon.
Saturday 7th August, 1999
FA Carling Premiership
Chelsea 4-0 Sunderland
[Poyet 20’, 78’, Zola 32’, Flo 77’]
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Bould, Butler, Gray, Summerbee, Ball (Fredgaard), Rae, Lumsdon (McCann), Quinn, Phillips Substitutes not used: Marriott, Helmer, Dichio
Chelsea: De Goey, Ferrer, Leboeuf, Desailly, Le Saux, Petrescu (Di Matteo), Deschamps, Poyet (Babayaro), Wise, Zola, Sutton (Flo) Substitutes not used: Hitchcock, Hogh