It is often said that the seeds of Sunderland’s record-breaking 105-point promotion season of 1998-1999 were sown amidst the heartbreak of their play-off final against Charlton Athletic at Wembley the previous May.

That game - regarded as the greatest play-off final ever - had swung this way and that before eventually ending 4-4 after extra-time, and fate dictated that it would be Sunderland-born defender Michael Gray who saw his penalty saved by Sasa Ilic in the shootout which sent Charlton to the Premier League.

The despondency felt by Sunderland fans as they streamed away from the Twin Towers hung over Gray like a black cloud as the players gathered in a largely silent dressing room.

But when manager Peter Reid and his assistant Bobby Saxton walked in the tone shifted and the foundations were laid for one of the greatest campaigns in English football which concluded in triumph 25 years ago this month.

“In that dressing room of course heads were down because we were absolutely devastated and no-one more so than myself,” says Gray.

“I was lost in my own thoughts after what had happened, really.

“But then the gaffer [Reid], who was a brilliant motivator, came in and told us all how proud he was of us and said that the next season would be different.

“Niall Quinn stood up and said ‘look, we’re going to take this league by storm next season’, and one or two others had their say too.

“People had very different emotions in that dressing room, but it still filtered through when I heard Reidy and Sacko [Saxton] and Quinny and the others all talking so positively - it sinks into your brain.

“As a group we were so close, so when Sacko turned to me and said ‘well, it was a crap penalty anyway!’ that defused the tension and lifted the mood.

“It was like a family, and no-one was getting in the way of our family.

“That was class and I don’t think you’d get that anywhere else, certainly not now because we’re in a different football era. There were no egos back then, it was just us, and it was brilliant.

“And out of that came the 105-point season and everything that went with it.

“We felt we were ready for the Premier League but just had to go out and prove it - and the next season we did that and then some!”

We Are Sunderland: Michael Gray's missed penalty against Charlton Athletic in the play-off final became the catalyst for Sunderland's record-breaking promotion seasonMichael Gray's missed penalty against Charlton Athletic in the play-off final became the catalyst for Sunderland's record-breaking promotion season

Sunderland certainly lived up to the maxim that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, responding to their Wembley agony by romping away with what was then the First Division - now the Championship - the following season.

Their 105-point haul set a new record for any team in English football’s four divisions (although it has since been eclipsed by Reading), with the Black Cats racking up a club record 31 league wins in a season, while losing just three out of 46 matches.

But first, before a ball was kicked, Sunderland’s dressing room ‘family’ was bolstered by a couple of summer additions with talented young Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen arriving from Odense, and experienced centre-back Paul Butler from Bury.

“It was already a magic dressing room,” says Gray. “It didn’t need much change that summer, just one or two tweaks - I think the only major signings were Tommy [Sorensen] and Butts [Butler].

“We had the attitude ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and we were moments away from promotion in that play-off final, so it didn’t need much adding.

“When Tommy came in he was only young but he soon proved how good he was. He had learned from [Manchester United and Denmark number one] Peter Schmeichel and we could immediately see that he was something a bit special.

“Butts came in and brought some added experience, and he played alongside Mel [Andy Melville] for most of the season and brought the extra physicality we needed.

“We already had great camaraderie all the way through that dressing room - there were some big characters, and none more so than our captain Kevin Ball.

“Bally goes under the radar sometimes, but he was the best captain I worked with in 20 years as a professional footballer.

“His leadership - on and off the pitch - was phenomenal, not just with the senior players but also with the academy lads and the youngsters just breaking through.

“He was fantastic and when he spoke, you listened.

“The way he conducted himself rubbed off on everyone else, as did his winning mentality and his desire every time he walked out of the dressing room.”




There was no hangover from the play-off final. Sunderland rolled up their sleeves and put the rest of the division on notice right from the start of the season as they embarked on a 24-match unbeaten run in all competitions, with 18 of those games coming in the league.

Gray remembers: “We got off to a great start, staying unbeaten until mid-November.

“We had a bit of banter throughout the whole of the club - from the academy or whatever it was then, the reserves, and the first team - because we’d all made unbeaten starts.

“Every week we’d each stick a tenner in a kitty, the reserves would stick a quid in, and maybe the academy players 20p or something, and the first team that lost would drop out and obviously the last men standing would collect the pot!

“It was little things like that that we did which spurred us on to stay unbeaten.

“And we didn’t let up from start to finish, we ended up with 105 points, only lost three times, and I think we only drew a dozen games.

“We won 31 matches - five more than anyone else that year - and ended up 18 points ahead of Bradford City, who finished second.

“It was some achievement. We had that winning mentality and momentum is a huge thing, especially in what is now the Championship because we all know how competitive it is.”

It was not all plain sailing, however. The influential Quinn was out of action for six weeks in August and September while his strike partner Kevin Phillips was sidelined for three-and-a-half months from mid-September until the New Year - although they still ended up with 18 and 23 league goals respectively.

We Are Sunderland: Peter Reid and Bobby SaxtonPeter Reid and Bobby Saxton

But with Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges ready to step in, there was no knocking the Black Cats out of their stride.

“We had a spell where Quinny was injured and then Kevin Phillips was out for a few months but while they were great players, we had lads like Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges to come in and that kept the show on the road,” said Gray, who was 24 in the promotion season and turns 50 later this year.

“We adjusted and adapted to suit their styles but we made sure our standards never slipped.”

At that time in the late 1990s, having recently completed the move from the history-filled but outdated Roker Park to the state-of-the-art Stadium of Light, with Reid calling the shots in the dugout, and with a team that played exciting, attacking - and, crucially, winning - football, Sunderland was a club on the up.

Gray said: “The whole city was right behind that team. It was only the second season at the Stadium of Light and there were 40,000-plus crowds nearly every week, when you came out of the tunnel there was just that vibe, everyone bought into it - the players, the fans, everyone.

“Every team that came to the Stadium of Light that season felt the full force of it.

“We were riding the crest of a wave and it was like we were all on that journey together.

“It was just a special feeling and a special season."