On December, 4 1999, Sunderland beat Chelsea 4-1 at The Stadium of Light to go third in the Premier League table, putting on a display of electric attacking football to avenge their opening day defeat to the Blues.
Approximately 167 miles away, Burton Albion were in pursuit of Premier League glory themselves…the Southern Football League Premier Division, that is.
Unfortunately, despite my diligent research, (typing Burton Albion 1999-2000 into Google), Burton Albion’s exact opponents that day remain a mystery.
I was able to find the league table from that season and have therefore narrowed down their potential opponents to 21.
Over the course of the campaign, The Brewers would face trips to the likes of Merthyr Tydfil, Halesowen, Grantham and Rothwell; unfortunately, I am sad to report that Burton Albion would ultimately end the season in second place, and fail to gain promotion on account of only the league winners going up with no play-off system in place.
Less than 20 years later, the two sides found themselves in the same league, the Championship, although in fairness at this point, it was more due to Burton Albion’s incredible rise than Sunderland’s tragic demise.
That being said, less than 12 months previously we had entertained English football’s elite on a regular basis, so the prospect of playing Burton Albion felt like an enormous indignity, especially as back in 2018 we hadn’t endured league fixtures against Rochdale, Accrington Stanley, Fleetwood Town and other titans of the game.
Going into the game both sides looked doomed, with Sunderland sitting bottom of the league, six points from safety and Burton Albion five points adrift of 21st place with three games to go.
Ironically, the lads hadn’t actually lost any of their previous three games but had picked up three frustrating draws after taking the lead in each of them.
Had we held on in just two of the three games, our prospect of escaping the drop would have been a genuine possibility rather than a pipe dream.
Despite the perilous nature of our situation, there was little sign that the day in question would go down as one of the darkest in our history.
The sun was shining on Wearside, to the extent where a lot of the crowd attended the match wearing shorts and there were plenty of Sunderland leg tattoos on display.
The lads started brightly enough and took the lead after 34 minutes when Paddy McNair continued his goalscoring hot streak by firing the ball beyond Stephen Bywater in the Burton Albion goal.
Weirdly, this sparked something of a carnival atmosphere among the Sunderland support, and throughout the second half there seemed little impending danger. We should all really have known better.
As the second half progressed, Sonny Coleman was spotted in a directors box, who responded to chants of ‘Sonny, Sonny give us a song’ with a trademark Coleman roar and fist pump.
However, in the 72th minute Darren Bent entered the fray and well, you know the rest.
With less than five minutes remaining Jason Steele parried an effort in his direction and Bent converted with ease.
Naturally, the moment was captured by Netflix and the sight of Jason Steele pathetically scrambling around on the floor clawing at fresh air as the ball sailed into the net will likely haunt my nightmares until the end of time.
Although this was pretty much the final nail in our relegation coffin, we at least would have still been in with a mathematical chance going into our final two games…until we somehow managed to concede again in stoppage time to seal our fate.
But in true Sunderland style, we couldn’t just go down with a bit of dignity and had the ball in the net just minutes later as the ball deflected off Ashley Fletcher and Paddy McNair into the back of the net during a goalmouth scramble.
A minute later after protests, general chaos and a detailed discussion with the referee and the linesman, the goal was ruled out and our stay in The Championship was officially over.
At full time there was a general state of bewilderment at what we had all just witnessed, fellow fans argued with each other over whether we were mathematically relegated or not as there was two games remaining and six points to play for; but as Burton faced fourth bottom, Bolton Wanderers just a week later, the gap was unbridgeable.
Not for the first time that season, I trudged over the Wearmouth Bridge in a state of absolute despair and even though relegation had seemed inevitable for the majority of the season, the knockout blow left me feeling sick to my stomach.
Depressingly for me, my sad day was to get even worse, as someone who grew up in rural County Durham, but lives in Sunderland, I’ve had many depressing evenings in Crook, Willington and assorted North West Durham shitholes after Sunderland defeats as I’ve caught up with friends from that part of the world.
Typically, that evening the only other Sunderland fan in that friendship group couldn’t make it, so I endured an hour-long bus journey to Durham followed by further half an hour bus journey to sit in a pub in Willington, where to their credit they did have Amstel on draught for £2.20.
Among the group of mates I was out with, one of them was a Boro fan who insists on treating Sunderland like rivals and two mags who would struggle to point out St James’ Park on a map, so as you can imagine I would have preferred to be anywhere else on the planet.
Later on in the night, I did at least bump into someone at the bar who overheard me ordering a beer and said the four magic words, ‘yae from Sunlun like?’ When I confirmed that I in fact was, we had a pleasant half an hour or so declaring that we’d ‘piss the league’ the following season and reasoned that travelling to provincial northern towns would be good fun for a season at least.
For a whole host of reasons, this felt like rock bottom and the scars from that day remain unhealed, the defeat would be shown worldwide via Netflix a few months later and to this day, the forever witty travelling support at The Stadium of Light continue to sing ‘we saw you crying on Netflix’.
Almost four years on from that ground zero moment, we are still in League One, we have failed to beat Burton in the intervening time period and should we fail to get promoted this season (lol) a child will have gone through their entire secondary school life knowing Sunderland as an exclusively League One club.
Going into this glamour fixture with Burton, we have won one game in nine and sit outside the play off places.
Ha’way The Lads!