Malcolm Dawson writes……….in his latest instalment of relegation reminiscences Pete Sixsmith recalls the season which saw SAFC leave Roker Park and also the Premier League – their seventh relegation from the top flight of English football. Surprisingly, he doesn’t mention the Sky documentary series “Premier Passions” which made Sunderland the talk of the footballing world for a time and a cult figure out of Tommy, the groundsman. My own two abiding memories of the end of that season are of Neville Southall carrying the ball out of the penalty area, leading to Chris Waddle scoring a free kick in the last ever league game at Roker and of the loon who jumped on a police motorbike outside Selhurst Park to hoots of laughter from the Sunderland fans and an over the top reaction by the boys of the Met, whose aggressive shouts and use of police batons turned what had been a good humoured and cheery post match atmosphere (despite the result) into one of threat and menace.
CHEER UP PETER REID
Picture the scene. It’s a Sunday night in May 1997 and Kings Cross Station is busy as thousands of Sunderland supporters make the long trek home from the pre Harry Potter/Parcel Office East Coast Main Line terminus, cramming onto the trains that will take them home to a summer of misery and soul searching and make them wonder if it is all worth it.
We had lost to the Premier League’s worst supported team in a stadium that made Roker Park in its death throes look good. We took 12–15 thousand supporters to that benighted part of South London known as Selhurst Park, knowing that if we were to beat Wimbledon we would start off at The Stadium of Light still in the Premier League.
A new era would begin for Bob Murray, Peter Reid and various assorted players and we would go on to establish ourselves as a challenger to the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Except we lost 1-0.
Paul Stewart had missed a chance that would have kept us up and sent Coventry City down. A Craig Russell cross was put over the bar by the Cumbrian and when Jason Euell scored in the 85th minute, the game was up. Back to the Championship we went.
And back to Kings Cross went Pete Horan and I after M Salut had given us a lift to some suburban station [I’m convinced I drove you all the way to Kings Cross, you ungrateful lout – Ed]. Vodka was purchased and openly taken onto the train. Police knew it was pointless trying to stop the consumption of alcohol by thousands of bitterly disappointed Sunderland followers who had heard that Coventry City had gained an unlikely win at White Hart Lane (complete with compulsory late kick off) to stave off their own relegation yet again.
As the white stuff slid down I said that that was it. No more Sunderland. They had let me down for the final time and I would no longer go. They could struggle on without me and I would stop wasting time, money and emotional commitment and take up another hobby – stamp collecting, making Meccano models, writing down train numbers – anything that would spare me the pain and upset of what I had just suffered.
I cancelled my ticket for the Stadium of Light on the Tuesday and for the next few months paid little attention to the results. I went to a few games that season but not many. I thought the bug had been swatted once and for all and to some extent it had. I am not as involved. I have ups and downs but the Cardinal Fang-like fanatical devotion has been dissipated – although not completely extinguished.
It was the relegation that never should have been. We did well for the first half of the season and wise signings like Tony Coton, Niall Quinn and Alex Rae complemented the likes of Kevin Ball, Craig Russell and Steve Agnew. There were some good wins. The first away game saw a wonderful 4-1 win at Nottingham Forest, there was a wonderful 3-1 victory at Goodison, where Michael Bridges and Lionel Perez were outstanding. Perez made a stunning penalty save and an even better one from a Duncan Ferguson header. Bridges was sublime. Chelsea were walloped 3-0 with Bally getting a great headed goal and John Mullin and Micky Gray put Manchester United away in March.
But we didn’t score enough goals. There were too many games that ended 0-0 and too many single goal defeats. The killer was at home to Southampton, a game that had we won, would have kept us up and sent the Saints down.
But we lost 1-0. We went down and Southampton scratched enough points to dodge the drop.
The only time we were in the relegation zone was on that last Sunday after the Wimbledon defeat. We had been eleventh at Christmas but had only a single win between beating Arsenal (a comical Tony Adams o.g.) in January and the 1-0 triumph at Middlesbrough in April, where Darren Williams became a cult hero by scoring the winner in front of his own people.
Reidy tried. He brought in Chris Waddle and Allan Johnston to give us a bit of width and craft and it almost worked. Both scored in an emotional last game at Roker as we did the double over Everton. But it wasn’t enough and the Stadium of Light had to make do with Stockport rather than Spurs and Manchester City rather than United. City went down that year and Stockport were the second best side in Greater Manchester while Port Vale ruled the roost in the Potteries.
The You Tube clip of the game at Selhurst is interesting. There are long forgotten products being advertised. Scorpion Lager and Elonex computers on the shirts and around the ground Tripleprint and Alliance and Leicester where you got a smarter investor.
Match of the Day was not advanced enough then to split the games on a minute by minute basis so John Motson had to be careful not to give anything away regarding the other scores. However, the anguish from the thousands of Wearsiders in the stadium must have made even the dimmest viewer realise that Coventry City were winning at Spurs.
This is a longer 20 minute MOTD clip
Reidy built a very good side the next season and an even better one the year after by which time I had drifted back, still supporting but a little more detached.
The exam factory which is the study at Sixsmith Towers has now closed and I shall be heading for Bury on Friday to welcome Simon Grayson. The two Everton loanees are big, strong players which is what you need in the Championship. I have seen them and been impressed by them when Everton Under 23s have played at Hetton.
A day on the East Lancashire Railway beckons, followed by food in Ramsbottom (the name of the snake in The Sooty Show)before doing the gate at Shildon v Darlington on Saturday.
Then, off to Tenby in Pembrokeshire to purge my brain of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the invasion of Manchuria and the Anschluss with Austria the analysis of which I marked 308 separate answers. I shall be reading anything but 20th Century History for a week.
Cheer up Peter Reid…….