Promotion to the FA Carling Premiership (as it was in those days) back in Peter Reid’s first full season was one of the most memorable during my lifetime. For a start I was a teenager, but aside from that, it came from nowhere.
Reidy had kept us in Endsleigh League Division One by picking up enough points at the end of the 1994-95 season, after picking up the reins from Mick Buxton with seven games remaining. With this in mind, expectations weren’t overly high for the following season.
This meant that winning the title, with virtually the same squad, felt like something of a miracle. It was our first season in the top flight since Denis Smith had taken us up to the old Division One for the 1990-91 season, and this would not only be our first season since the launch of the Premier League, but also the last at Roker Park.
The move to the stadium was now a reality as construction got underway at the former Wearmouth colliery site, and with it a realisation that everything during the 1996-97 season would be the last for our famous old ground.
Reid strengthened within the constraints of finances that also took into account the gates at the time that were possible at Roker, as well as the impact of the cost of the new stadium.
Alex Rae became the first player to break the £1m transfer fee record at the club when he signed from Millwall, Niall Quinn soon beat that a couple of weeks later with a fee of £1.3m that was required to facilitate a move from Manchester City. Tony Coton, who was Reidy’s number one at City when Reid was manager there, also joined for around £600,000 at the age of 35 from Manchester United.
By the time we were ten games into the league campaign, we had lost both Quinn and Coton to long term injuries.
By the time the first weekend of January arrived which is the traditional date of the FA Cup third round ties, the Lads were sitting pretty in 11th in the table ahead of a tough trip to Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal in the cup, where the Frenchmen had taken charge just five months prior.
Lionel Perez, who had been signed for around £200,000 from Bordeaux, stepped in after Coton’s injury and at Highbury, the Frenchman performed heroics to seal a replay after Michael Gray had equalised.
A week later, sandwiched in between the draw in the cup and the scheduled replay, was a league fixture that brought Arsenal to Roker Park, in which Reid’s side sealed all three points in a bad tempered affair that saw Dennis Bergkamp receive a red card.
This meant the final game of the trio between the two sides would be an evening cup fixture under the lights at Roker four days later in front of the Sky Sports cameras. The game was played at high tempo and was end-to-end, but few chances were created in the first half which saw the sides head in goalless at the break.
But a minute into the second half, Arsenal played some neat passes on the edge of the area before the ball fell to the feet of Bergkamp, who had been the subject of stick from the crowd after his tackle on Paul Bracewell during the league fixture that led to the red card and the Sunderland midfielder being ruled out of the replay.
The Dutchman had appeared to lose control of the ball on the edge of the box which led to an opportunity for Darren Williams, who had made his Sunderland debut in the initial cup fixture at Highbury, and John Mullin to nip in to win possession - but Bergkamp had different ideas.
With two drag-backs he went he not only took the two Sunderland midfielders out of the game but went from facing away from goal to being in the edge of the box with Andy Melville back off.
Then, without adjusting his body like mere mortals might need to do, he curled the ball over the outstretched hands of Perez who stood no chance as it hit the top corner of the net. Despite the stick he had received and his actions from the previous fixture days earlier, the applause was audible from the home fans there to witness the goal.
The visitors took control of the game after this point and were denied by a combination of the woodwork and impressive saves from Perez, which lasted until just after the hour when Arsenal put the game beyond doubt.
A move that freed Paul Merson on the right hand side saw him cross to the back post where Stephen Hughes and David Kelly challenged, but the cross was so good that any touch from either player was likely to result in the second goal. It was 2-0 and game over.
A sad way to end for Roker Park’s long FA Cup history.
Wednesday 15th January, 1997
Third Round Replay
Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal
[Bergkamp 46’, Hughes 65’]
Sunderland: Perez, Hall, Melville, Ord, Kubicki, Kelly, Williams, Mullin (Aiston), Gray, Russell, Bridges (Smith) Substitutes not used: Heckingbottom
Arsenal: Seaman, Parlour, Keown, Bould, Adams, Winterburn, Viera, Platt, Hughes, Merson, Bergkamp Substitutes not used: Lukic, Morrow, Shaw