It was half time at Elm Park, in the deeply miserable Sunderland end of the tatty old Reading ground, when Barry Emmerson turned to me.
“Flaming two nil down to this lot,” he said, though flaming was not the adjective he chose. “What do you want to happen next? We come back in the second half and get a lucky draw, but know we’re utter crap? Or we get hammered 4-0 so Reidy and the board know they’ve got to get their fingers out?”
There was no comeback. Barry’s obvious preference was the precise outcome. On the day, the one tiny consolation was that Kevin Phillips, coming back from injury, was sent on as a sub and at least peppered the Reading goal with shots. You could see, even on that bleak day to be a Sunderland fan, that he might have what it takes.
It was also a bleak day to be Peter Reid (pictured courtesy of A Love Supreme) or anyone else travelling on the Sunderland team coach. SuperKev was among the players who who would never forget the hostile send-off they got from fans who had spent good money only to be cheated by the club they adored.
Brian McNally wrote in the Sunday Mirror:
Sunderland, meantime, suffered a stunning 4-0 setback away to struggling Reading. The Elm Park side were not even at full strength – yet they could have won by more, and that sparked angry scenes among Sunderland’s travelling army of loyal fans. Chants of “Reid out” led to the manager fleeing the ground via a side exit. Earlier an angry Reid laid into his players. “They short-changed us,” he said. “Our fans deserve better.”
So Barry had got the result right. And the unspoken second part of his imagined scenario – a defeat so humiliating that something would have to be done to produce an immediate turnaround in the club’s fortunes – came true, too.
Reading away in October 1997 was the watershed. Reid saw sense, went for some radical surgery in the line-up and led his team agonisingly close to promotion. Come the end of the season, Barry Emmerson’s supreme ability to get hard-to-come-by tickets sent his popularity soaring; he even took to answering the phone: “Ticket office.”
And however heartbreaking the Charlton playoff turned out to be, Reidy had pulled off a remarkable transformation and it was in the best interests of SAFC at the time that we had to wait another year.
The next season saw us runaway champions, often playing brilliant football and bagging goals and points for fun. So by the time we did go up, we were better equipped to stay, even after losing Michael Bridges, Allan Johnston and Lee Clark in a spot of close-season madness.
Turning round a club in the second division – whatever it’s called – is not the same as reversing a relegation-threatening run in the Premiership.
But Reading away this weekend offers Roy Keane’s flimsy squad as good an opportunity as we it can hope to get for the spark to another revival.
Pete Sixsmith was right to argue that despite the laughable refereeing howlers committed by Steve Bennett, we did not really deserve to beat Aston Villa. He was also right to describe Reading as another must-not-lose game.
If we are to enter the festive period with a hint of optimism, this is the ideal moment to notch that first away win. Reading have done well to attain mid-table status in the top flight. But they are not much more than a useful side – they’re the only team we’ve managed to go into a two-nil against this season.
Beat them away and I will feel a burst of renewed hope for the rest of the season. A draw would be just about bearable, and we’d be praying for some seriously good news in the January transfer window.
But if we can do neither, I will start to harbour doubts even about the trip still to come to the club that is as good as down already, Derby County. And those are the kind of doubts that, for a Sunderland supporter, logically lead in only one direction.