Despite being the 6th best English club side of all time, Sunderland have not been viewed as a big club for some time now. This is completely understandable. No one in their right mind would describe the sides put out by the likes of McMenemy, Butcher, Wilkinson/Cotterill or McCarthy as the ‘Team of All Talents’, as Sunderland were affectionately labelled by the Football League’s founder William McGregor in 1890.
Due to my age, the only memories I have of Sunderland being really successful have been formed by stories from my Granddad about the genius of Len Shackelton, Brian Clough or Charlie Hurley, or my Dad telling me exactly where he was when Ian Porterfield shot through the crowded box to beat Revie’s ‘Dirty Leeds’ at Wembley.
In my time supporting Sunderland, I have witnessed countless promotions, a Play Off Final defeat, and two of the worst points totals in the history of top flight football in England. We have been the epitome of the yo-yo club, and that is a hard label to shift, just ask West Brom.
However, for a brief period between 1998 and 2001, everything seemed to go right. After accumulating a then-record 105 points to get promoted to the Premier League, Peter Reid took largely the same squad to a top half finish in ‘the greatest league in the world’.
Reid used his own brand of world-famous motivational team talks to get this band of wholly decent players performing above and beyond anything they had achieved before, and in most cases, would afterwards. Spurred on as a collective by the horrors and the heartbreak of THAT game against Charlton at Wembley, this was a team with a point to prove.
Experience and top-flight nous arrived in the form of the ever dependable Steve Bould, whilst the previously unknown Eric Roy (pronounced Waaaah) and record signing Stefan Schwarz were also added to bring a touch of class to the midfield.
Undoubtedly though, the stars of the show were Sunderland’s own little and large combo, Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. Aided by the ever dependable delivery of Nicky Summerbee (before he inexplicably fell out with Reid and was pushed to the sidelines), ‘Quillips’ as nobody called them scored an unbelievable 44 goals between them in their first season back in the top flight, with Super Kev also nabbing himself the European Golden Boot award for good measure.
We eventually finished in 7th place, just missing out on a place in the Intertoto Cup to Aston Villa on goal difference.
The highlight of that season, and one of the best examples of the Quillips (it won’t catch on will it?) partnership came on 4th December 1999. With a fantastic run of form putting Sunderland in 4th place, 2 points behind Manchester United at the summit, Chelsea arrived at the Stadium of Light. Although this was pre-Abrahmovich, Chelsea still boasted the not inconsiderable talents of Zola, Poyet and Desailly within their ranks, and on-paper should have had more than enough to see off a Sunderland side featuring Darren Williams, Darren Holloway and Paul Thirlwell.
A brace each for Quinn and Phillips inside the opening 35 minutes put Sunderland 4-0 up at half time, with the aforementioned Poyet getting a consolation 10 minutes from time. Despite only being 11 at the time, I can distinctly remember the sense of jubilation and disbelief from all corners of the ground. It finally felt like this was a club going places. I can replay the entire build-up to Phillips’ over and over again perfectly in my head, however for every year that passes another yard gets added to the distance from goal from which he hit it.
A now-legendary away win in the rain at the former St. James’ Park in August followed by a six-game winning run were further highlights from a truly memorable start to the season.
Unfortunately the hard tackling, never say die attitude which had so characterised these early stages disappeared, just in time for the now customary New Year’s slump, with a nine game winless streak the unwelcome result.
It wasn’t plain sailing though. This is Sunderland after all. Part way through the season the club announced the signing of a Honduran international striker for £1.5m by the name of Milton ‘Tyson’ Nunez, and that fans lapped it up. He was paraded at half time with ‘Tyson’ flashing on the scoreboard, and 36,000 turned up to witness his debut for the second-string against Manchester United. No-one who witnessed all 4’11 of him for the reserves or in his two subsequent appearances for the first team will forget him quickly. It soon transpired that Reid and the board had purchased the wrong player, and the rumours are the club took Nunez and his agent to court for going along with this utter farce of a transfer and ‘misleading’ the club.
We eventually finished in 7th place, just missing out on a place in the Intertoto Cup to Aston Villa on goal difference. Although much maligned at the time, reaching Europe through such a route would have been Sunderland’s first appearance in a continental competition since getting knocked out of the Cup Winners Cup by Sporting Lisbon in 1974.
The only real negative of the 1999-2000 season had been an over reliance on Quinn and Phillips for goals.
Despite just missing out on Europe, finishing in such an elevated position straight after promotion was an incredible achievement for the club. There was much speculation at the time as to whether or not the Summerbees, Grays and Makins could make the step up, with Rodney Marsh famously claiming that Kevin Phillips would struggle to get 6 goals in the Premier League. To a man they proved the doubters wrong.
The only real negative of the 1999-2000 season had been an over reliance on Quinn and Phillips for goals. Only 13 were contributed by the rest of the squad in the whole of the league campaign, and with worries about possible ‘second season syndrome’ for Phillips, and Quinn not getting any younger, a goal scoring midfielder was desperately needed.
Reid turned to Don Hutchison to fill the gap, and he played a huge part in another memorable season, scoring 8 league goals. Emerson Thome, the only Brazilian unable to make a six yard pass, was also brought in from Chelsea as the club again broke their transfer record to replace the retired Steve Bould.
An opening day victory over Arsenal and a second successive 2-1 win at the Sports Direct Arena (including a missed pentalty by a certain MOTD pundit) showed that the heroics of the season before were no flash in the pan.
Unbelievably Sunderland were still second in the table by the end of January 2001, and finished the month welcoming to the Stadium of Light the only side above them in the whole of English football: Manchester United.
I remember it was a cold Wednesday night in front of the Sky cameras for this unlikely top of the table clash. After spending the mid-nineties watching on with awe at the battles between Keegan and Ferguson, it was invigorating to see ourselves in a similar position at such a stage in the season.
It was a very ill-tempered game, with Hutchison and Rae facing up against Keane and Scholes in the centre of midfield, and tackles flying in from every angle. The atmosphere worsened when Andy Cole scored in contentious circumstances (appearing to start from an offside position before bouncing the ball under control with his hand). Gray voiced his displeasure at the referee and was sent off, before Alex Rae and Cole joined him in the dressing rooms for going forehead to forehead.
That summer, the team began to disband. Quinn retired and the club failed to keep hold of the likes of Hutchison and Rae, in part due to high profile fallings out with Reid
Whilst the Chelsea game the season before had seemed like the start of something amazing, this game felt like we had actually arrived in the big league, going toe-to-toe with the best midfield in the world, even with 9 men, and leaving feeling incredibly hard done by that we didn’t get at least a point.
As usually happens in such cases, the defeat seemed to knock the wind out of our sails, and just 3 wins from the remaining 14 games meant that Sunderland finished in 7th place for the second year running.
That summer, the team began to disband. Quinn retired and the club failed to keep hold of the likes of Hutchison and Rae, in part due to high profile fallings out with Reid, who attempted in vain to replace the departed, but was unable to do so adequately.
I still firmly believe that the United game, despite the result, was the pinnacle of my Sunderland supporting life so far, and a win there might just have given the players the belief to go on and make Europe that season, thus being able to attract a better quality of player and really push on. The following summers transfer dealings still feel like a missed opportunity to this day, and we have yet to reach those heights again nearly 12 years later, despite huge amounts of investment.
What with the monopoly on the top 4-5 places in the league now, I can’t see Sunderland infiltrating it again any time soon. At least I will have the memory of Super Kev scoring a volley from 47 yards out to tell the Grandkids.
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