Our drop down to League One in 2018 brought with it a first home meeting with Oxford United in 20 years. That previous game at the Stadium of Light two decades prior is one that has lasted long in the memory of Sunderland fans, particularly those, like I was, of an impressionable age.
With the disappointment of play-off final defeat in the summer still stinging, Niall Quinn’s subsequent rallying cry appeared to have had the desired effect as Sunderland started the season in extraordinary form.
Heading into this game we were unbeaten,with Kevin Phillips and the aforementioned Quinn as imperious as ever but news that both would be missing for this fixture, the former with a long-term injury, made fans apprehensive.
Oxford were managed at the time by Malcolm Shotton, a Geordie who’d cultivated a fearsome reputation during the 1980s as a U’s player and was surely relishing the prospect of putting the Division One trail-blazers in their place.
I distinctly remember the pre-match narrative was one of fear that we wouldn’t be able to continue our good form without arguably our two most important players. I mean, where would the goals come from?
We needn’t have worried as the game resulted in seven goals for Sunderland and a healthy-looking royalty cheque for the James Brown estate. Stand-in strikers Dichio and Bridges each notched a brace, Micky Gray whacked in a daisy-cutter of a freekick while another two goals came from the unlikely source of Alex Rae, the final one a lovely team goal celebrated with a cheeky bow.
As a kid I’d always been baffled by the “we’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” chant. Clearly, I thought, this isn’t true since that position is held by The Hurricanes, but after that performance and with our two talismen missing, I naively thought “maybe we are?”
Back then, unless you were lucky enough to catch the goals on Tyne-Tees later that evening then you’d have to wait for the end of season VHS to relive the magic. Whoever put this together indulged in a bit of trolling before trolling was a thing by showing the highlights for this game accompanied by some carefully chosen music. “What’s this dad? I asked. “It’s the theme tune to The Magnificent Seven” he replied.
That video is up there with the following season’s Black Cats, Top Dogs as one of my favourites as it mainly showed us battering teams in a manner we haven’t really seen since. While we ended the season going up as Champions with 105 points, Oxford were relegated to Division Two and that 7-0 defeat is still the largest in their history.
Peter Reid said after the game he’d seen Shotton “in a state of shock” and that he’d given a clear message to the Oxford United board that they needed significant investment or they’d never compete with the likes of Sunderland again. Sadly for us our back to back relegations meant Shotton’s prophecy was a little wide of the mark but another 3 points this Saturday would take us one step closer to not having to compete with them again next season.