Great Football League Teams 10: Sunderland, 1998-9

Posted by on Jan 19, 2011 in Great Teams | 4 Comments

With the echo of repeated ker-chings ringing in their ears, Sunderland fans may care to pause for thought and recall their current helmsman in times uncomplicated by the tang of filthy lucre. For the Niall Quinn of the 1998-9 season was the cranium of a team with true backbone; the holder of a points record of 105 that’s still the second best ever.

Quinn was partnered by Kevin Phillips of course — one of those once in a lifetime buys that repays speculation time and again. Already impressive at Watford, the ex-Baldock Town full back fired in 23 goals as the Mackems made up for melodramatic play off disappointment the June before. With a back up squad of Danny Dichio and the precocious Michael Bridges, these ex-Rokerites could fire on all cylinders and withstand the most rigorous of striking injury crises.

The sternum of that team included the not so much old fashioned, more veritably medieval Kevin Ball, a deeply distressing man to play against if you value firm ankles. Alongside, the marginally more creative Lee Clark and Alex Rae contributed much despite injury hit campaigns — although the former was later to blot his sartorial copybook. What conventional creativity there was came from the wings with the odd couple Allan Johnston and Nicky Summerbee a Little and Large of wizardly wingers.

With a stentorian guard of Andy Melville and Paul Butler, the spinal column of the team was rock hard and Thomas Sorensen, Michael Gray and Chris Makin completed the defensive vertebrae. Eighteen games passed before a first defeat and Oxford were dismissed 7-0 following a 5-0 pasting of Tranmere and a 4-1 lolloping over Watford. Phillips scored in six of his first seven matches and a run to the Worthington Cup semi finals did nothing to detract from the league dominance.

Three winter defeats constituted minor blemishes and the 41,000 mark was continually smashed in the run in. Quinn took over from Sorensen in goal in the 1-0 win at nearest rivals Bradford and promotion was clinched as Phillips scored a double brace at Gigg Lane; opponents Bury defeated by 5 to 2. The maestro behind it all was a man whom the Black Cats felt needed forever cheering up, the simian headed Peter Reid; ably assisted by Bobby Saxton and a youth team duo of Ricky Sbragia and Bryan “Pop” Robson that oversaw the emergence of future Premier Leaguers Jody Craddock, George McCartney and Gavin McCann. That this eleven would proceed to clinch a seventh place the following May comes as little surprise in retrospect.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. gerschenkron
    January 19, 2011

    Indeed – a great side. I will never forget though having to listen to the interminable moans of one particular Sunderland fan in the years following these successes – he finally got what he longed for and Reid was out. The result was almost on a par with Man City's trajectory after binning Reid earlier in his career.

  2. Ben
    January 19, 2011

    Sunderland? Great side? Does not compute… ;)

    Even I've got to admit grudgingly that Quinn and Rat Boy Phillips were one of those lethal double acts who complemented each other to perfection – as we found out to our cost in the derby at a rain-sodden St James' at the beginning of the following season. The pair inspired a comeback from 1-0 down at half-time to win 2-1 and condemn Ruud Gullit – who'd famously left Shearer and Ferguson on the bench – to the sack. So I suppose we're grateful to them for something, at least.

  3. bhappy
    January 21, 2011

    A fine team, no doubt, and visits to the SoL around that time were special. I was at the 4-1 tonking Sunderland gave us, and the 2-0 defeat at the start of the prem season.

    But I can't think of that team without remembering Jan 30th 1999. We beat Sunderland 2-1 at Vicarage Road, the winner coming from a remarkable overhead kick from Gifton Noel-Williams, who had just turned 19. Peter Taylor, then England U21 boss, was at the game, and Gifton was reportedly due a call-up.

    Then the “stentorian” Butler stamped on his knee. He was out for eighteen months, effectively, and when he came back… well, championship fans, particularly those of Burnley and Stoke (who were championship at the time) will remember a strong centre-forward, but not one who was, crucially, quick, mobile or remarkable. Before the injury he was all of those things, and improving at an extraordinary, terrifying rate.

    Truly the most tragic thing I've seen in 30 years of watching Watford.

  4. Lanterne Rouge
    January 22, 2011

    Poignant comments Matt – I also remember Gifton being a star – and yes, that Sunderland team had a dark side for sure.


Leave a Reply