There haven't been too many winners in this shocking year, so I'm focusing on a home game which didn’t end in three points. Previously, I've loved recalling the wins at Newcastle and Bradford but now's the time for a healthy dose of reality.
1999 had been a good year. We were doing nicely on our return to the big league, flying high. We’d won 11 of our first 18 games and only come unstuck against Chelsea (spectacularly, on the opening day) Leeds and Liverpool – decent teams all of them. Super Kev had hit the ground running and even though we missed him at Everton on Boxing Day, his absence wouldn't have made much difference as we stunk the place out and lost 5-0. Not the ideal result with Manchester United next up two days later.
The visit of the champions was one we were all looking forward to though, and the Stadium of Light was sold out, many going for the traditional Christmas jumper and flashing Santa hat combo. Not for me, Clive. A few weeks earlier we’d seen off Chelsea despite having more than our fair share of injuries, so there wasn’t any trepidation in our camp, despite the Goodison gubbing. Our healthy points tally may been boosted by picking off the weaker teams but that pounding of Gianluca Vialli's lot proved we weren't just flat track bullies.
I wasn’t the first season ticket holder to be faced with the festive dilemma of match or family. Like most, the football won. It was a tricky one though. I’d finally taken some responsibility in my early 30s, buying a house with my missus and inviting mam and dad round for a few days. Part of the deal was that I’d be off to the United match, it wasn’t up for discussion.
Mrs Todd-Malone-to-be knew I wouldn’t change my mind, realising Sunderland had been a massive part of my life for 25-odd years and seeing it first-hand for three of them. Shame about the folks. When I grabbed the keys and told them I’d see them all in six hours or so the disappointment on their faces told me they didn’t know me like she did.
Any slight pangs of guilt disappeared when I entered a packed Howard Arms for pre-match with the usual faces, such an important part of the day that we all took for granted and now miss. Fast forward an hour or so and the ground was rocking with anticipation. Days like these...
We hit them like a train early on. Gavin McCann got the first and Paul Butler should have made it 2-0 before Quinny did, with an effort which grazed the bar on its way in and sparked pandemonium in the south-west corner. I loved being a regular here but, to be fair, this was one of those rare nights when all parts of the ground matched its energy and volume.
I’d love the story to end here, but it didn’t. Keano got them back into it midway through the first half and from then on it was a case of digging in. We did it brilliantly, restricting them to few chances despite seeing little of the ball. The clock inevitably dragged but we were given hope that we might just hang on. Then, with four minutes to go, they were awarded a dubious free-kick in front of the dugouts. With Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer to deal with and the trusty jostling in and around the box, the officials missed (or chose to ignore) Gary Neville pinching another 10 yards and when the ball came in, it broke for Butt. His shot wasn’t well struck and would have been easy for Tommy Sorensen, had it not grazed Butler’s shin and found the corner of the net. I can still see it now, trickling in, just as I can still hear the collective sigh of dejection punctured by the odd rant and clatter of foot kicking seat.
There was always plenty of time for reflection on the trip back, but I couldn’t be downbeat about this one. Yes we’d dropped a couple of points but there was so much to be proud of about where we were, emphatically heading in the right direction barely 18 months after that play-off loss to Charlton. I wasn’t sure what the mood would be like when I got home and was chuffed when they saw my buzz and were happy to share it, rather than giving me grief for disappearing. We might not have been successful but I felt like I’d won the lottery. What I’d give for a day like that now. Happy Christmas, now wash your hands...