Sunderland 4-1 Chelsea: The inside story of the one of the Black Cats' greatest games - told by the players at the heart of it
We delve deep into one of Sunderland’s greatest games - by speaking to the players at the heart of it.
We start in December 1999, as Peter Reid’s Sunderland welcomed a star-studded Chelsea to the Stadium of Light.
The result was a clash that has lived long in the memory on Wearside, and we spoke to Paul Thirlwell, Darren Williams and Eric Roy to get the inside story of a fixture which has since been dubbed the ‘Chelsea massacre’.
SETTING THE SCENE
This was a Sunderland side starting to hit its stride under Reid.
With Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn in full flow, this was vintage Sunderland - with the Black Cats starting to make a real mark in the top flight.
Chelsea, in contrast, were already well-established as a force in the Premiership under Gianluca Vialla and were eyeing a maiden title.
Indeed, the Blues had already inflicted a heavy defeat on Sunderland on the opening day of the term as they ran out 4-0 winners.
“I remember myself and Jody Craddock sat on the sidelines at Stamford Bridge, and it was hard to watch to be quite honest,” recalls Williams.
But while revenge may have been on the agenda for Sunderland, a similar result was expected on Wearside - particularly given the Black Cats were without regulars Kevin Ball, Steve Bould and Alex Rae.
In came a number of unproven players.
“It was my Premier League debut,” says Thirlwell.
“I’d just come back from a loan spell at Swindon where I’d played 12 games in the Championship and I felt I was a lot more ready to be involved in the first team.
“Bally got injured on the Friday, and I got told I was starting.
“We had a couple of injuries and suspensions at the time so I got the nod that I was going to be playing.
“I can’t remember how much I slept the night before - but I’m sure it wasn’t much.”
His partner in midfield that day was Eric Roy - a French midfielder who had joined from Marseille only months before.
While he was a proven quantity in France, this was a new experience for the 31-year-old.
“I arrived three or four months before, at the end of August, and I tried to do my best for a new club, new country and new football - at this time it was very different, English football from French football.
“I tried to improve, understand and to do my best. I’m sure this game was very important for me.”
Sunderland: Sorensen, Makin, Williams, Craddock, Gray, Summerbee, Schwarz, Roy, Thirlwell, Quinn, Phillips
Chelsea: De Goey, Lambourde, Babayaro, Desailly, Hogh, Poyet, Wise, Morris, Harley, Zola, Flo
Chelsea themselves were without some key men - most notably French international Didier Deschamps.
But this was still a strong side, and one which was preparing to face Roma in the Champions League days later.
“For me it was a special game, because in front of me I had a big, international French player in Marcel Desailly,” says Roy.
“Didier Deschamps wasn’t there because he was injured, but he was an important player in the team too.
“We were in a good way at that moment, we had good momentum and we started well.”
THE PERFECT START
That’s something of an understatement.
There were just 45 seconds on the clock when the Black Cats took the lead, with Roy providing what proved the abiding memory of his time in the North East - a superb assist for Quinn to open the scoring.
“I remember it’s a run I do.
“The ball arrived to me about 30 yards outside the box and I took the ball, ran and made some dribbles, two-touch between the player, and then I saw Niall in the box.
“I put in the cross, a little cross with my left foot - which is not my best foot!
“It was his first goal, and it was a good start. I can’t remember what minute it was, but it was early.”
For Thirlwell, it helped settle any debut jitters.
“I was just thinking ‘Jesus, that’s a massive help.’
“That made life a bit easier.”
“It gave us a massive boost and a massive lift,” adds Williams.
“When Niall put the ball in the back of the net, the crowd reacted.
“All of a sudden they were up for it - and that gave us a massive lift as well.”
QUINN AND PHILLIPS STEAL THE SHOW
It was two after just 24 minutes - Kevin Phillips’ delivering a moment of magic and sending a sumptuous half-volley past Ed De Goey.
Classic Phillips, and this game was the perfect example of the partnership he and Quinn cultivated.
“It was incredible,” says Roy.
“For me - sure, Niall was a fantastic player and goalscorer, and was very important on the pitch and in the team also - but Kev Phillips was the big surprise.
“When I arrived in England I didn’t know him. But I’ll tell you the truth, when I spoke with people in football back in France, in Europe - they’re always asking about Phillips and the Golden Boot.
“Kev, he was maybe the best striker I’ve ever seen in my life. The way he could strike the ball, the goals he scored - and he made a fantastic partnership with Niall.
“When you have two players up front like this, it’s very important and gives a lot of confidence to the team.”
The duo would both have their braces before the break.
Phillips’ second came as he reacted quickest to a parried Quinn shot - as he once again found himself in the right place at the right time. A hallmark of their double act.
“It’s not like they worked tirelessly on the training ground, saying ‘if I do this, you do that.’. It just clicked,” adds Thirlwell.
“Kev just seemed to know where to run at the right time and exactly what Quinny was going to do.
“It just caused people no end of problems - and it certainly did that day.”
Quinn would have his second - and Sunderland’s fourth - only moments later, sending a sweeping volley home from 18 yards.
Sunderland were 4-0 up, and there weren’t even 40 minutes on the clock.
FOUR UP BY HALF-TIME
“I don’t think anybody would have come up with that scoreline,” admits Williams.
“It was surreal, really.”
Sunderland were in dreamland.
This was a side who, despite being stripped of some of their experienced heads, were tearing apart one of the Premier League giants.
The key? That famous dressing room atmosphere cultivated by Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton.
“We did have some fantastic players on paper, but everybody you speak to will say it was all about the dressing room and the atmosphere around it,” says Thirlwell.
“Everybody had that affiliation with the fans and we were tight and united. Along with that came success.”
“We knew the team was down in numbers, but we had confidence in whoever stepped in,” adds Williams.
“We had such good spirit and morale and we fought for each other every day.
“I think that showed in that season - and this game - because we did exceptionally well.”
PETER REID - THE PERFECTIONIST
That sparkling first half display led to a more relaxed half-time team talk.
That was until Reid and Saxton entered the room.
“You’re going into the dressing room at half-time and everyone is a bit more relaxed, with a bit more of a relaxed team talk between the players,” explains Williams.
“But before we left the dressing room, Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton had their rant. Their words were a bit more stern.
“It brought us down to earth a little bit - yeah it’s a 4-0 cushion, but things can change quickly.
“We knew if we took our foot of the gas then we’d give them a route back into the game.”
The warning was heeded, with the second half was a far more tepid affair.
Sunderland, for the most part, controlled the game - but saw hopes of a rare clean sheet (it would have been their first in over two months) dashed in the dying minutes when Gus Poyet netted.
That meant Reid’s perfectionist traits were once again evident in the post-match debrief.
“It was disappointing to concede that goal - and that was said in the dressing room at the end and they did point out we needed to cut out the errors,” adds Williams.
“But if you step back and take a look at it, we conceded a goal against a very good Chelsea side.
“It does put a damper on it as a defender, though.”
That late consolation goal wouldn’t linger on the memory, though.
Instead the abiding memory was of a packed-out Stadium of Light celebrating another vintage performance under Reid.
Even for veteran Eric Roy, this remains a happy thought.
“The atmosphere in the Stadium of Light that day… it’s the best I’ve seen in my life.
“That game, it's a very good memory for me.”
And so it is for thousands of Wearsiders.