Why Gary Neville was right about Sunderland – but it’s time to end Manchester United woe

Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata
Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata
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Long before Gary Neville left Sky Sports to try his hand on the coal face of football management I remember accosting him about Manchester United’s view of Sunderland.

I had this idea in my head that we were a team which clubs like United worried about, that they knew when they came to the Stadium of Light that they would be in for a battle and a game.

David Jones

David Jones

Gary was having none of it.

They loved visiting Sunderland he told me; start well and the crowd would quieten down after 15 minutes and we almost always left with three points, was his memory of the place.

I argued my corner but realised soon enough it was futile and actually borne out of a memory of a game we didn’t even win.

It was Christmas 1999 and a crowd fuelled by festive cheer roared on Peter Reid’s dashing side which romped into a two-goal lead after just 13 minutes.

The noise was extraordinary but the opposition weren’t far behind.

Roy Keane covered every blade of grass that day, as good an individual performance as I can ever remember seeing first hand at the Stadium of Light.

He scored the goal which gave United a lifeline and Nicky Butt grabbed their equaliser four minutes from time.

It was with mighty relief Manchester United left the field with a point that day: they knew they’d been in a game all right.

But that was actually the last time we scored two goals against United in a league game at the Stadium of Light.

Through the era of Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in his pomp we barely got a kick, sometimes simply stunned into admiration of the rapier-like attacking play which was cutting us to ribbons.

It was painful but we could acknowledge their brilliance and accept it.

Saturday feels different.

United are no longer a team to fear, you don’t look down their team sheet and gasp in wonder at the dazzling stars. They’ve played seven games this season away to teams in the bottom half of the table and won only one of them.

Of course there is still the craft of Juan Mata, the pace of Anthony Martial and the hunger of Rooney, which unfortunately for us seems fully restored after a desperate dip in form; but this is not the United of old.

We have seen enough from this new-look Sunderland, slowly being built by Sam Allardyce, to at least expect us to give them a game.

Lamine Kone looks like he’s built for English football, Jan Kirschhoff has shaken off his disastrous debut to lift the quality in our midfield and I fully expect Wahbi Khazri to make big strides once he adjusts to the Premier League pace.

They don’t concede many goals, but as Sam will no doubt be preaching to the players this week, the set piece could be absolutely crucial.

A large percentage of the crowd on Wearside this Saturday won’t have even been born when Sunderland last beat Manchester United at home in the league: March 8, 1997.

John Mullin was the red and whites’ hero scoring the second goal minutes after Micky Gray had fired the lads in front in what was our last meeting at Roker Park.

United have visited us 13 times since in the league without tasting defeat – it’s high time Sunderland put that record to bed.

Sure there was the League Cup success two years ago but the Premier League is what really matters, now more than ever.

I felt we missed a trick last season when United were all over the place at the start of life under Louis van Gaal but still managed to leave Wearside with a point, which to me at the time felt like two dropped for Sunderland.

Nineteen years is too long. It’s time to write a new chapter in our Manchester United memories.

Sky Sports presenter David Jones is a lifelong Sunderland fan and writes exclusively for the Echo