The move to the Stadium of Light was of course a memorable time for Sunderland supporters, but amidst all the hullabaloo the side was enduring a tough run of results on the pitch.
Relegation from the Premiership on the final day of the previous season had been tough to take given the squad’s efforts during the campaign and there was definitely a bit of a hangover during the opening weeks of 1997-98.
Three defeats out of the first four did not feel like a fair reflection of the performances, with the match against Norwich City being particularly galling; bottom of the table at the start of proceedings, the Canaries became the first visiting side to come away from the new ground with a win despite being penned in for several long periods.
Unable to find their feet in a new division, there seemed to be something playing on the minds of Peter Reid’s team who were unable to fully click in front of goal and force the ball in when on top.
Next up though were Oxford United, whose midweek visit on this day offered a chance to get back into the groove – under management duo Denis Smith and Malcolm Crosby the U’s were also going through a sticky patch and were looking just as low in confidence as the Lads.
There was a sombre mood at kick off following a minute’s silence for Diana, Princess of Wales who had tragically died at the weekend just gone and it did take a while for the game to get going. When it did it was courtesy of a superb long range goal from Oxford’s Mark Angel, who ironically enough became the first Sunderland fan to score at the SoL and the first product of its youth set up to do so as well.
Although from Newcastle-upon-Tyne originally, he had grown up supporting the red and whites and got himself up to a young pro contract earlier in the decade before moving to the Manor Ground.
That set the nerves jangling yet this time Sunderland had their own shooting boots on and were able to make the most of their opportunities. Kevin Phillips stooped to head in a wicked Martin Scott free kick and after that a second followed almost immediately, and as is often the case when things start going your way it was thanks to a huge slice of fortune when Chris Makin’s speculative attempt took a massive deflection off Joey Beauchamp.
The win was confirmed early in the second half when Andy Melville scored against his former club, beating Phil Whitehead with a finish any striker would be proud of after the ball had been recycled following a Michael Gray corner. Things had fallen nicely again as Oxford struggled to clear the danger, yet the points were still fully deserved thanks to a strong display.
Victory helped people settle in their new surroundings and start feeling at home but, just as importantly, it also went a long way towards banishing any lingering pain that was still being felt following demotion. There were a lot more ups and downs to come during the rest of the season, but Sunderland had now found their range.
Tuesday 2 September 1997
Nationwide League Division One
Sunderland 3 (Phillips 40’, Beauchamp O.G. 44’, Melville 49’)
Oxford United 1 (Angel 20’)
Sunderland: Perez; Makin, Melville, Ord, Scott; Johnston (Byrne 73’), Clark, Ball, Gray; Quinn (Smith 79’), Phillips. Unused: Williams.
Stadium of Light, attendance 27,643