And so its all over. Promotion and the championship have been won. LEIGHTON KITSON reflects on Sunderlands record-breaking campaign
AUGUST- THE first day of the season and expectations were high of a successful season ahead following the so-close-but-so-far disappointment of the play-offs.There were debuts for Sorensen and Butler and Kevin Phillips got back on the goal trail with the winner against QPR from the penalty spot.However there was to be a dampener on the day for the 40,000 crowd when Lee Clark broke his ankle when challenged by Keith Rowland.Clark Woe was the Football Echos headline. Sunderland boss Peter Reid said: "I dont think the tackle was malicious. Football is still a physical contact sport and these things happen - Im just sick for the kid.There was something Iffy about the first away trip of the season as an Onuora goal meant Sunderland stumbled to a draw against Swindon - Phillips with the equaliser after a poor first half display.Then Swindon boss Steve McMahon said: "We came very close in that first half to wrecking a lot of coupons."Dan was the man as Dichio scored twice in the five nil win over Tranmere. The former Sampdoria front man put his success down to the man he was replacing, the injured Niall Quinn.He said: "Niall is one of the best in the business at holding off his man and holding the ball up. I have worked a lot with him since I came to Sunderland and its beginning to pay off."Former England boss Graham Taylor praised Sunderlands attacking style as his Watford team were swept away 4-1 at the Stadium of Light - and then backed Kevin Phillips to make it big.Taylor sold Phillips to Sunderland for 350,000 before the previous season.He said: "You dont score 35 goals in the first division without having something about you."I think Kevin will go on to prove himself in the top flight."On The Up was the Echos confident prediction when Ipswich Town were defeated at Portman Road. It was a sweet victory on the ground where defeat last season had condemned Sunderland to the play-offs.John Mullin starred in midfield. He said: "I sat down with the gaffer at the end of last season and we both decided I should give it a go in midfield."SEPTEMBER - Bristol City stole a point when they equalised with only two minutes left on the clock at the Stadium of Light.Peter Reid was philosophical about the result. "I cant have a go at my players after that," he said."We werent able to convert our chances and we got hit by a sucker-punch right at the end - thats football."Danny Dichio revealed Kevin Phillips new nickname after the pint-sized forwards injury-time equaliser at Wolves - Johnny-on-the-Spot.He said: "Thats what you have got to expect of Johnny, I mean Kev, you can never give him half a chance because there is a good chance hell score."Reid in Seventh Heaven said the the Footy Echo as Sunderland went nap against Oxford. Thats What I Call Sexy Football was the Sunderland Echos Monday headline as a riposte to Ruud Gullits ambitions for Newcastle United.Peter Reid was less excited by the seven nil win. He said: "Yeah, Im pleased with the way its going, but lets keep it in perspective. Nothing is won in September, its a long hard season."Niall Quinn got off the treatment table to score after only three minutes at Norwich, but it still wasnt enough to give Sunderland their first win over the Canaries for 15 years in the league."I think everyone knows what I think of Niall," said Peter Reid after the 2-2 draw. "He might not be able to keep up with people when it comes to running, but he has a great touch and he reads the game so well."OCTOBER - Bradford skipper Stuart McCall warned Sunderland about the "big club factor" when his side ground out a 0-0 draw at the Stadium of Light - comparing the club to Scottish giants Rangers.The ginger midfielder, who spent several seasons at Ibrox, said: "I was used to it for years with Rangers."When teams come to Sunderland its their cup final and they look for an extra gear."Comeback Kings Get Out Of Jail said the Echo as Sunderland recorded their 500th league away win by coming from 2-0 down to beat West Brom 3-2 at The Hawthorns.Peter Reid said: "I though the character of my players and the way they kept going when they were two-nil down was superb. I cant speak too highly of them."The Lads came from behind again to to take a point at Huddersfield where Town boss Peter Jackson was confident his side could push the Wearsiders all the way."Everyone thinks Sunderland and Bolton are going to run away with it, but we have been top for five or six weeks now," he said."Maybe people will start taking us seriously after this result." Maybe, Peter.Top At Last! screamed the Football Echos headline as Danny Dichio scored the only goal in a one-nil win over Bury which ended a three-week exile from top spot.Shakers boss Neil Warnock defended his sides negative approach to the game. "If wed have come here and tried to attack wed have been beaten 8-0," he said."Sunderland are the best side in the First Division and I think they will walk this league."NOVEMBER - The Reebok Stadium was the scene of the seasons greatest smash-and-grab raid as Sunderland beat an attack-minded Bolton 3-0.Wanderers manager Colin Todd held his opponents up as a role model for his own side. He said: "Sunderland didnt play that well, but they looked like they wanted it more and they battled very hard to get the right result. Thats something Id like to see my players copy."Another four goals were added to the tally at Crewe where the home fans were so demoralised by their teams performance they sang "Were not singing any more".A rare appearance by Martin Smith saw him score two goals in 3-1 win over Grimsby and earn the praise of boss Peter Reid."Martin Smith is a very talented footballer," he said, "possibly the most talented player at this club and really he should be in the team every week."Another victory at Port Vale and the dejected manager said: "The problem with this Sunderland side is that they have no obvious weaknesses, they are strong in every position."However they werent the words of then Vale boss John Rudge, but rather those of watching Luton manager Lennie Lawrence whose side had drawn Sunderland in the Worthington Cup.Rudge was more straightforward in his praise. "They are the best team in the league," he simply said.Peter Reid was linked with a 10million bid for Evertons Duncan Ferguson, but defending, not goalscoring, was the problem against Barnsley.Blunderstruck said the Echo as a 3-2 home defeat robbed Sunderland of the chance to make it a record 19 consecutive league games without defeat.Reid said: "The run was going to end some time and I think my players deserve a lot of credit for the way they have got us this far"Michael Bridges was the star as he scored two in the 4-0 win away at Sheffield United taking his total for the season to 10.Strike partner Niall Quinn said: "Michael has come into the side to replace Kevin Phillips and made a massive impact."Michael is a terrific footballer, a natural. I can see he has special gifts."DECEMBER - Nicky Summerbee was buzzing after scoring the only goal on a snow-covered pitch against Stockport when the undersoil heating broke down.It was a day for mechanical problems at the Stadium of Light as Peter Reid explained in his post-match press conference."Dont ask me about the goal," he said. "I was still in the lift at the time. It just seems to have been one of those days for me."The bright spot of the day was the return of Alex Rae as a sub following his stay in a clinic for alcohol and stress problems.Port Vale were given their second beating in a month. A dejected John Rudge said: "They are a class above one or two of the sides in this league and when you have a side as good as that you know cant compete with them on a skill level."Another win - this time over Crystal Palace - and a sign of the times that the 33,870 who turned up were part of the seasons lowest home league gate.Despite having his own promotion ambitions, Birmingham boss Trevor Francis was pleased with the 0-0 draw at St Andrews.He said: "The table shows Sunderland as the best team in the league and I said long ago that I thought Sunderland would win the championship quite convincingly."Prenton Hoodoo Stuns Reidy said the Football Echo as Sunderland were handed their customary defeat at Tranmere.The 1-0 loss meant Thomas Sorensen was denied the chance of equalling Chris Turners record of seven consecutive clean sheets for the club.Reid said: "Its always a very tough place to go, but if anyone had told me at the start of the season our first away defeat would come on Boxing Day, I would have been delighted."Michael Bridges scored again in the 2-0 win over Crewe and afterwards Dario Gradi, manager of The Railwaymen, revealed hed tried to sign the 20-year-old."Bridges is an excellent player, I like him. At one stage I asked Peter if I could buy him although I wont tell you the answer," he joked.JANUARY - Kevin Phillips injury problems had been a pain in the backside for worried Sunderland fans, never mind a pain in the big toe for the man himself.So it was with relief that he returned to the side at QPR after an absence of four months, lashed in a screaming volley after just half an hour and then put in a full 90 minutes following Kevin Balls sending off.Peter Reid said: "Early on he just showed what a finisher he is. His goal was top drawer."And so Ipswich came to the Stadium of Light full of promotion ambitions, played well, scored a cracking goal courtesy of Matt Holland, and still got beat.George Burley was gracious in defeat. He said: "The Stadium of Light is a difficult place to come, but we gave everything. Thats all I can ask."Founder of the Sunderland AFC Watford supporters branch and sometime football manager Graham Taylor compared his new love SAFC with the championship-winning Everton side of the 80s - even though his team had just beaten The Lads 2-1."Sunderland are not yet as good as the Everton team in which Peter (Reid) starred, but they mirror them and play in a similar style," he enthused."When you watch the way they play, spraying the ball about crisply in midfield, using their wingers, squeezing the play, from one side to the other, you can look at the Sunderland players and see a direct correlation between Reid and Bracewell, Steven and Sheedy."All across the park I can see it. I look at Quinn and Phillips and I can see the likes of Andy Gray and Adrian Heath."FEBRUARY - More than 41,000 fans were at the Stadium of Light to see Swindon beaten 2-0. Despite the result new Robins boss Jimmy Quinn didnt think his side froze in the big match atmosphere."I dont think my players were over-awed by the crowd," he said. "As a player myself I liked playing in front of the big crowds."I used to love coming to Roker Park where the atmosphere was excellent and as I recall I didnt have a bad record there."A late Kevin Phillips penalty secured the points at Ashton Gate against Bristol City to open up an eight point gap at the top.Just as nothing is won in September, Peter Reid remained cautious about his sides chances. He said: "Im delighted with the three points but theres still a long way to go. You dont win anything in February."Quinn Raises The Roof, said the Echo, as big Niall popped up with a last minute winner against Wolves who had two Robbie Keane goals disallowed.Manager Colin Lee said: "I think we deserved to get a draw and it was really disappointing the way we lost the game. There were a few broken hearts in our dressing room."Peter Reid blasted the officials following the 0-0 draw at Oxford on pay-per-view television.He said: "There were a couple of times when the assistant referees didnt know the rules."Its when the ball is played when you judge whether someones offside - we were making good runs and they kept sticking the flags up."MARCH - World Cup winner Alan Ball became the latest admirer of the Stadium of Light when his Portsmouth side were beaten 2-0.The Pompey boss said: "Sunderland deserve a lot of credit. They are a good side, they believe in themselves and the Stadium of Light is something of a fortress. Im just glad we came here and gave them a good game."At last Peter Reid allowed himself to relax and look ahead to the Premiership following victory over Norwich.He said: "Yes Im delighted with this win. We are not there yet, but lets put it this way, we can see the finishing line."Ex-Middlesbrough boss Bruce Rioch, in charge of the East Anglians, was also looking forward to Sunderlands elevation.He said: "I know exactly what football means to people around here and it would be fantastic to have three North-East teams in the top flight, the rivalry would be fabulous and why shouldnt that be? We have three big London clubs in the top flight at the moment, so why not the North-East?"Niall Quinn took the injured Thomas Sorensens shirt for the last 15 minutes at Bradford to help Sunderland beat their nearest rivals at Valley Parade.Peter Reid revealed there was panic on the pitch when the big Dane had to go off with concussion - until Quinn stepped forward.The Irishman had saved a Dean Saunders penalty as an emergency stopper for Manchester City against Derby in 1991.Reidy laughed: "He said to me Dont panic, what are you panicking for? Ive been in goal for you before and I can do it again - and thats just what he did."That success was followed by a win at Grimsby - Close To The Dream was the Echos headline. But even after beating Bolton 3-1 promotion remained a dream because the teams at the top refused to lose."Everyone keeps winning, its doing my head in!" Reid said. "I keep putting the champagne in and out of the fridge."APRIL - The players werent taking promotion for granted either. After the 3-0 win over West Brom Lee Clark said: "The rest of the country might think we will make things easier for opposing teams because we are so far ahead in the league, but no-one in our dressing room feels that way."We have still got a massive job to do and we want to finish it off."Crystal Palace manager Steve Coppell believed Sunderland would be a force in the top flight after a 1-1 Easter Monday draw.The former Manchester City boss said: "They have got the ground, they have got the support and they have got a great manager. They have got good players and you just feel they are ready to take on the challenges of the Premiership."Niall Quinn also thought the club was better equipped than the last time it was promoted.Speaking after the 2-0 home win over Huddersfield he said: "I came here on the eve of the Premiership and saw a side that was far more defensive than this one. I feel we will be more creative next year than last time."Back Where We Belong was the simple Echo headline after victory at Bury finally confirmed Sunderland were indeed back in the big time.Chairman Bob Murray backed Peter Reid to learn from the mistakes of the past. "Peter Reid will spend whatever Peter Reid feels he has to spend," he said. "He has bought enormously wisely since he joined the club and personally I think he has brought in players at great prices who will go on to become players who will go down in the history of the club."A celebrating Peter Reid was still in determined mood. He said: "Theres no way we are easing up now. We have still got four games to go and I like winning games. Personally I want us to go for that 100 points now."Kevin Phillips said: "We can look forward now to playing at places like Old Trafford and Highbury and hopefully I can keep scoring."Sunderland were hailed The Champions! on the Echos front page following victory at Barnsley which was capped by a superb Phillips solo goal. Peter Reid finally let down his guard.He said: "My players have been magnificent tonight and all season. Now we are going to go out and party."The players deserve every credit for what they have achieved this season."Andy Melville praised his team-mates. "I know my job is at the back, but going forward we have been different class and you cant help but admire some of the stuff we have played, even when you are on the pitch."The champagne was bound to go flat, but no one really cared about the 0-0 bore-draw with Sheffield United.Peter Reid said: "It was just one of those games where we tried to get a spark, but just couldnt get going."Weve had a lot of hard games - its been a long road - and it just didnt happen on the day."Blades boss and staunch Magpie Steve Bruce joined Sunderlands growing band of admirers and said: "Im genuinely pleased for Sunderland, even though Ive been brought up a Newcastle fan, because I think it is great for the North East to have three big teams in the top flight."MAY - Cowboys and Indians, aliens and Arabs all joined the Red and White Armys promotion party at Stockports Edgeley Park.The travelling support produced a carnival atmosphere and a goal from Kevin Phillips sealed the day with a win.Skipper Kevin Ball said: "It was like a home game for us with so many Sunderland fans there. They were remarkable."The party came home for the finale - with a fireworks spectacular preceding a come-from-behind 2-1 win over play-off-bound Birmingham, Phillips and Quinn notching.A perfect way to finish a record-breaking season, with 105 points won - comfortably the best ever record in the Football League.Roll on August.THE CUP CAMPAIGNS - WHILE promotion was Sunderlands main aim this season, the Worthington Cup provided a welcome distraction.Ultimately the journey was halted within touching distance of the Twin Towers by Leicester City.But it was an enjoyable ride for the fans - many of whom savoured their first experience of the Stadium of Light because of reduced entrances prices during the early rounds.Following a 2-0 win at York City, a staggering 22,695 turned up for the home second-leg which produced a 2-1 victory.Manger Peter Reid paid tribute. He said: "It was an unbelievable turn-out considering. All credit to our fans. They got behind us well and eventually we gave them something to cheer about."Kevin Phillips crocked his big toe against Chester City in a 3-0 second round win.It was also the night when the Stadium of Light turnstiles clocked up their first 1million spectators in just over a year since the arena opened.A club spokeswoman said: "Its great for the club to have attracted so many people in just over a year."Michael Gray tipped Allan Johnston for international success with Scotland after Magic scored the winner in the return leg at the Diva Stadium.Gray, who would later win an England call-up along with team-mate Kevin Phillips, said: "I dont know why he isnt in the Scotland squad at the moment, but they must have some fantastic wingers if Allan cant get into the fray." Johnston later won his first Scottish cap.Another gem was unearthed when Paul Thirlwell was given his first start against Grimsby in round three. Peter Reid said: "He seems to have the gift of being able to guess where the ball is going to bounce, hes got quick feet and he can pass the ball well."I dont like to get carried away about young players but Paul was very impressive."The highlight of the campaign was the away win at Everton, in round four, when Sunderland proved they could match a Premiership team and win on penalties.Super Heroes, said the Echo after Thomas Sorensens spot kick save from Ibrahima Bakayoko clinched a quarter-final place.The Dane said: "It was not a difficult save, but making it meant a lot to me because it put us through to the next round."Once you have done something like that then you go a little crazy - I just ran towards our fans, I couldnt believe it!"Luton were dismissed in controversial circumstances. With the tie balanced at 0-0 Hatters defender Mitchell Thomas was sent off and Sunderland went on to win 3-0.A bitter Lennie Lawrence said: "My memory of this game will always be what would have happened if we had reached 0-0 at half-time with 11 men still on both sides."We might have lost anyway, but, unfortunately, Ill never know and that is a disappointment.""We are Premier League" sang the celebrating Leicester fans after they won the first-leg of the semi-final 2-1 at the Stadium of Light. Job done they thought, but Leicester scorer Tony Cottee was still cagey."We havent had the best of home records lately and Sunderland have one of the best away records in the game these days," he said.Boss Martin ONeill said: "A 2-1 lead means absolutely nothing - write off Sunderland at your peril."The 34-year-old Cottee made sure the Wembley dream died when he scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Filbert Street when Sunderland put in a terrific performance.Martin ONeill was generous in his praise. He said: "Sunderland played us off the pitch in the first half and they deserved to go in front at that point."I would say they are ready for the Premiership because they caused us a lot of problems."The FA Cup adventure wasnt to last as long. Gavin McCann ensured a third round win at Lincoln City, but the match was overshadowed by the FAs decision to replace referee Paul Danson.Sunderland had complained about his appointment to the game because he had officiated at a Premiership match against Arsenal in 1996 when he sent off Paul Stewart and Martin Scott.Imps manager Mick Fletcher said: "The whole situation about the referee disappoints me and I feel very sorry for Paul Danson. For the FA to do to him what they have done this week is more than a crying shame for football."An excellent performance brought no reward at Blackburn when Sunderland lost 1-0 and had what looked like a perfectly good Lee Clark goal ruled out.Full-back Chris Makin said: "The lads just cant believe it. There is a strange feeling in the dressing room because we feel we have done more than enough to win the game."