Great Football League Teams 10: Sunderland, 1998-9
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.