Sunderland fans have not had much to cheer in recent years, a passionate fan base having seen their club rarely far from chaos as the north east outfit have slipped down England’s footballing pyramid.
A decade stay as an established Premier League outfit was followed by successive relegations in 2017 and 2018, the current campaign their third attempt at getting out of League One as the Black Cats look to rebuild.
Optimism has surrounded Wearside in recent weeks following the announcement of a new takeover, French billionaire, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, becoming the youngest chairman in the EFL with the 23-year-old’s investment offering a beacon of hope to the long-suffering Sunderland support.
It has not always been this way, however, with the past decade one of the most challenging in the club’s long and storied existence, mismanagement at the highest level contributing to a downfall that was played out amidst the soap-opera style of the Sunderland ‘Til I Die documentary.
New investment promises a new era, one which will hope to replicate the success of Peter Reid’s side who became iconic figures in the North East during the late nineties and early 2000s.
The Football Faithful spoke exclusively to former Sunderland star, Michael Gray, about a period fondly remembered by those of a Black Cats’ persuasion.
Reid was appointed at Sunderland in the mid-nineties following a three-year spell at Manchester City, inheriting a side battling against relegation in the second tier and steadying the ship before launching a push for the Premier League.
The results were instant as Sunderland were crowned as champions during his first full season in charge, though the club’s first experience of the top-flight ended in an instant relegation as they struggled with the demands of the higher level.
It would, however, be just the first learning curve on a journey to success.
Reid restructured the team following their drop back into the second tier and bolstered his forward line with the signing of Kevin Phillips from Watford, an investment which would prove one of the shrewdest in Sunderland’s modern history.
Phillips formed a brilliant ‘little and large’ partnership with the veteran Niall Quinn in attack and the duo fired Sunderland’s promotion push following an indifferent start, scoring 43 goals between them as the Black Cats missed out on the automatic promotion places by just a single point.
Reid’s side headed into the play-offs as favourites and in good form after losing just one of their final 15 fixtures, overcoming Sheffield United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals to set up a Wembley meeting with Charlton.
Gray recalls the pressure of the build-up, the relentless demands for interviews and the expectation from the fan base as the promise of a place in the Premier League edges ever nearer.
“It’s a special game, no question about it. We all know what it’s worth, financially and when you think about what’s at the end of it, if you come out triumphant, by jumping into the Premier League,” Gray told us.
“We felt that we had good form going into the play-offs, and Charlton had good form going into the play-offs. At the time, not many of our players, me included, had ever been anywhere near Wembley as a player so it was all new to us.
“You just give every ounce that you’ve got left because it’s a long, long, hard season in the Championship and it’s just a one-off game that you’ve got to dig deep and find that extra 10 or 15% to get you over the finishing line.
“We tried our best, we got to the end and I think obviously everyone knows what the outcome was.”
The play-off final is often described as one of the most high-pressure games in football and can be a tense affair for the participating sides, though Sunderland’s meeting with Charlton remains the greatest game ever witnessed in the second tier’s winner-takes-all showdown.
An exhilarating contest finished 4-4 after extra-time with Clive Mendonca scoring a hat-trick for Charlton, who came from behind on three occasions to force the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
Both teams netted their first five spot-kicks and the shoot-out would head into sudden death, with a fatigued Gray the unfortunate party to miss, sparking wild Charlton celebrations as they secured their promotion and place in the top tier.
Sunderland were down, but not out and Gray recalls the attitude of the dressing room following their Wembley heartache, when the dressing room leaders challenged the side to bounce back and go once more – a scenario which unfolded as the club earned promotion in record-breaking fashion in 1998/99.
“Without a doubt, the motivation never left our sight. Even going into the dressing room after that game there was a few lads who made brilliant speeches and I think it was all taken on board.
“Niall Quinn I remember saying ‘we’re gonna bounce back, we’re gonna take this league by storm’ and that was the case, I think everyone went away and had a mini-break, me included, and I went back to training two weeks before everyone else because I couldn’t wait to get back on the training field.
“I was a bit nervous, going into the first game because you don’t know what reaction you’re going to get from the fans, you feel like you’ve let everybody down, you’ve let your teammates down, that’s the way you’re thinking.
“I got a brilliant reaction and from that moment it was ‘how many are we going to win by this week’, I think we lost three games that season, got 105 points and it was just brilliant.
“That was all down to the dressing room, the manager we had in place, the characters we had. Camaraderie takes you a long, long way. Ability does and hard work, but togetherness, you can’t beat it.
“The season we lost the play-offs, if I’m honest I don’t think we were ready to jump into the Premier League. I think we needed another season together, so that put us in good stead having heartache and knowing how much it hurts to lose big football matches.”
Sunderland cantered into the Premier League in record-breaking fashion after amassing a staggering 105 points, Phillips and Quinn again at the centre of their success with the duo scoring 23 and 21 league goals respectively.
Such was the club’s success that season, both Gray and Phillips were called into the England squad whilst still Championship players, the former making his debut as a substitute against Hungary in 1999.
“I think what me and Kevin achieved in that season is pretty darn special, to be honest with you, and that came off the back of a brilliant season.” Gray said on his England debut.
“I think as you’re going along you kind of get an inkling, people have a word in your ear and say you’re not far away.
“But when it comes along, what a feeling, to be one of those guys who made his England debut whilst playing Championship football, there’s only a handful of people who’ve done it and it’s something I’m pretty proud of.”
Big time football was back on Wearside at the start of the next season and following the reality check of a 4-0 opening day thumping at Chelsea, Reid’s side began to compete with England’s elite.
Phillips exploded in the Premier League to fire Sunderland into the division’s top half, the Black Cats in the Champions League places heading into the festive period before finishing a respectable seventh.
Phillips finished the season with a staggering 30 goals to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot and the European Golden Shoe, the forward remaining the only Englishman in history to win the latter award.
Any suggestions of second season syndrome were soon removed as Sunderland once again pushed for continental qualification in 2000/01, and Gray admits it was a ‘special time’ to be a local player as Reid’s side punched above their weight.
“It was brilliant, it was such a special time. Every time we took to the field, we felt like we were going to win. We were just on this roll of success and I think that all boiled down to the dressing room we had, the manager, the camaraderie that we had at the club.
“It wasn’t just the players and the manager, I think we were really close to the supporters. We gave them as much as they gave us on match days. With the atmosphere that they would stoke up home and away, we didn’t want to let anybody down every single week.
“We went from a relegation-fighting Championship side, to getting promoted into the Premier League and not feeling like we were just there to make up the numbers.
“We wanted to push and challenge for those European places because we felt like we had the team to do it.”
Sunderland’s bid to upset the Premier League’s status quo saw the club finish four points adrift of sixth-placed Chelsea and a UEFA Cup place, and the following season would see an end to the dizzying heights of competing alongside the division’s best.
Reid’s side struggled to replicate their previous performances and finished 17th, securing their Premier League status by just four points following a difficult campaign at the Stadium of Light.
Gray discussed the cracks that started to appear within the Black Cats’ dressing room and believes Reid made mistakes with his recruitment when trying to take Sunderland to the next level.
“I think you could see and sense there were cracks starting to appear, there were certain players who had had their heads turned with other clubs being interested in them.
“I think that always plays on certain individual’s minds and you could see the standard in training dropped a little bit. Not much, but it doesn’t take much, probably 5% and you were trying to gee these players on and say ‘whilst you’re here, give everything you’ve got’ – but it’s difficult to do.
“I think the gaffer will say he tried to take the club in a different direction and brought in foreign players who didn’t really know what the Premier League was about, and you could sense it in the dressing room.
“Good, talented individual players, but didn’t really know what Sunderland was about and that’s when we started to fade away, the atmosphere and camaraderie in the dressing room started to slip away a little bit.
“I think when you’re on that slippery slope and you’ve got that group of players, it’s hard.”
Reid’s reign came to an end the following season following a dismal start to the campaign, one which would ultimately end with Sunderland’s relegation after finishing bottom of the Premier League.
Gray looks back on that era with immense pride however and believes the Sunderland of the late nineties and early noughties exceeded all expectations.
“One of the big disappointments is that we never got Sunderland into European football.” he said.
“I’m not saying we could challenge for titles and the top four, in my era it was the top four and that was really, really hard to break into. The talk now is of the ‘big six’ and you can see how hard that is to break into, that’s a cycle that’s never going to change.
“You’ve got to be a realist, understand where Sunderland are and what kind of club we are. Yes, we’ve got the fanbase, but when it comes to financial backing the big guns are always going to attract better players than what we can.
“I think those two years we probably overachieved, that’s not to criticise anyone at the club, it’s just the football we played. You have to remember we had Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn as the star names in our squad, everyone else came from nothing.
“People like Thomas Sorensen, he came as a teenager and made a name for himself. Gavin McCann, one of the best midfield players I’ve played with, made a name for himself.
“One of the big guys who came was Stefan Schwartz, he had a big name there’s no question about that, but it’s very difficult with three big star names and the rest of the players in the team to push for Europe and where we finished, 7th and 7th, is an achievement in itself.”
The seasons since those days have seen Sunderland largely endure a yo-yo existence with the last decade being perhaps the most challenging of the club’s long history, but hope has returned in the shape of new investors hoping to spark a new era in one of the country’s most fanatical footballing cities.
Sunderland will always be challenged both financially and geographically in comparison to England’s elite, but the challenge for their new ownership will be building a side a long-suffering support can associate with once more.
The blueprint may just be the club’s overachievers of the early noughties, a side still so fondly remembered.