Nottingham Forest 0 Sunderland 3 – March 4, 1998
Sunderland proved their character with a resounding win at leaders Nottingham Forest to roar right back into the race for automatic promotion out of the First Division.
Held by Ipswich four days earlier, Peter Reid’s men produced a performance to remember to outgun a Forest side fresh from thumping second-top Middlesbrough 4-0.
A vociferous 5,000-strong travelling support was in raptures as goals from Alex Rae, Allan Johnston and Kevin Phillips steered Sunderland home at the City Ground, allowing them to move within three points of the top two, with a game in hand.
Even manager Reid, usually reluctant to be dramatic in press conferences, admitted it was a huge victory.
He said: “It was a crucial game – they were a quality side – and it’s an important win.
“I’ve got young players who have come into the side this season and this was a big test for them – they’ve passed it with flying colours.
“You are always wary of playing against a strikeforce like Pierre van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell, but we handled them well.
“It’s a good one for us, but there’s a long way to go.”
Forest had the better of the early play, and their best moment came in the ninth minute, Lionel Perez grabbing a van Hooijdonk free-kick just under the bar.
Sunderland, though, gradually took control as Rae, Lee Clark and Kevin Ball dominated the midfield battles, and the opening goal came on 32 minutes. Phillips fed the ball out to the left for Johnston, and his cross to the far post was headed home by Rae to delight the travel;ling fans.
The Wearsiders survived strong claims for a penalty when Perez dived at the feet of van Hooijdonk and retained control into the second half, with Jody Craddock desperately unlucky not to score with a fine header from a Clark corner.
Ball narrowly missed from long range before Sunderland doubled their lead midway through the second period, with Johnston’s exquisitely executed ninth goal of the season.
Niall Quinn could not find a way to goal in a scramble and Forest cleared frantically, but only to Johnston on the left of the penalty area.
The former Hearts man paused for an instant before chipping a delicate ball over the crowded defence, keeper Dave Beasant’s desperate lunge and Steve Chettle’s weak header and into the far corner of the net.
Sunderland visibly grew in stature, roared on by their deliriously noisy support, with Ball inspirational, his performance epitomised by a superb sliding tackle on Andy Johnson which turned under-pressure defence into attack.
He then fired a 20-yard snapshot against the post.
Sunderland, though, bagged a killer third goal on 79 minutes, with Phillips hitting his 23rd goal of the season.
Clark’s intelligent ball up the right released Quinn, who galloped down the wing and delivered a wonderful cross to Phillips, at the far post, and the striker cracked home a fierce effort to put the game beyond Forest.
Home boss Dave Bassett admitted: “Sunderland are the best team over the season. Our centre-halves just couldn’t cope with Quinn and Phillips.
“Sunderland were very up for the game and when they got their second goal that was it.”
Nottingham Forest: Beasant, Lyttle, Rogers, Cooper, Chettle, A Johnson, D Johnson (Thomas 61), Gemmill (Bonalair 61), van Hooijdonk, Campbell, Bart-Williams
Sunderland: Perez, Holloway, Gray, Clark, Craddock, Williams, Ball, Rae, Quinn, Phillips, Johnston