Ha’way Back When: True grit pays off as Peter Reid’s high-fliers shatter Hatters

Kevin Ball loses out as Lutons Ceri Hughes clear the visitors lines at Roker Park in February 1996. Pictures by Malcolm Murray
Kevin Ball loses out as Lutons Ceri Hughes clear the visitors lines at Roker Park in February 1996. Pictures by Malcolm Murray
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Sunderland 1 Luton Town 0 – February 24, 1996

Sunderland stepped up their push for promotion to the Premier League with a fifth successive home clean sheet.

The Rokermen were never at their best, and they required an own goal from makeshift Luton centre-back Julian James to secure all three points.

Michael Gray makes a burst down the Sunderland left against Luton

Michael Gray makes a burst down the Sunderland left against Luton

The victory moved Sunderland within a point of second-top Charlton Athletic, and boss Peter Reid was relieved to follow up a 1-0 midweek win over Ipswich by handing the Hatters their first defeat in nine games since Lennie Lawrence took over as manager.

“At this stage of the season, you take anything that is going,” Reid told the Echo. “I wouldn’t say it was our greatest performance, but I’m delighted with the victory.

“It’s another clean sheet and, though the goal was fortunate, the build-up was excellent.”

The move was indeed delightful, coming seven minutes before half-time. Craig Russell and Lee Howey played their parts in helping the ball out to Michael Gray, who delivered a teasing centre and the hapless James could send the ball flying past startled keeper Ian Feuer.

Craig Russell grafts against Luton in 1996

Craig Russell grafts against Luton in 1996

The win was typical of Sunderland in the second half of the season, grinding out victories with determined all-round performances, lacking some of the flair which had excited fans earlier in the campaign.

Kevin Ball enjoyed a strong performance at the heart of midfield alongside Paul Bracewell, having been moved forward from his usual role in central defence, where Reid preferred a pairing of Richard Ord and Andy Melville.

Skipper Ball said: “Competition for places is intense. If the manager wants to play me in midfield, that’s his decision.

“If he didn’t think I was doing it there, he would soon change it. The gaffer has told us he wants more players in their penalty area and, while defending remains a priority, I’m getting fitter running box to box.”

Luton staged a stirring fightback in the closing stages which had the home side hanging on.

On-loan teenager Shay Given, who made a magnificent save to deny David Oldfield two minutes after Sunderland’s breakthrough, came to the rescue late on, with two breathtaking stops to deny sub John Taylor.

That took the Irishman’s clean-sheet record to six in eight league appearances.

The match proved to be the last game of Manchester United winger Terry Cooke’s loan, with assistant boss Paul Bracewell disappointed by Alex Ferguson’s decision to recall him.

He said: “He did well for us and we wanted him for a second match, but they want him back.”

Sunderland went on to seal promotion as champions in Reid’s first full season in charge of the club.

Sunderland: Given, Kubicki, Scott, Bracewell, Ball, Melville, Michael Gray, Ord, Howey (Bridges 73), Russell, Cooke

Luton Town: Feuer, James, Thomas, Waddock, Oldfield, Johnson, Guentchev, Hughes (Thorpe 45), Marshall (Riseth 64), Alexander, Harvey (Taylor 54)

Att: 16,693