Dead rubber? Sunderland’s inspirational former captain Kevin Ball doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

Ask him which game of Sunderland’s record-breaking 105-point season 25 years ago brought the greatest satisfaction and he immediately picks out the final day victory against Birmingham City at the Stadium of Light.

It didn’t matter that promotion to the Premier League was already in the bag, clinched almost a month earlier when Peter Reid’s side won 5-2 against Bury at Gigg Lane.

Nor that the First Division (as it was before its Championship rebrand) title had been sealed with a 3-1 win at Barnsley just three days later.

No, by the time Birmingham arrived on Wearside in May 1999 for Ball it was all about pride and a determination to avoid a repeat of the end-of-season blues that had spoiled the Black Cats’ previous promotion celebrations three years earlier.

“We lost at Tranmere Rovers that day in 1996 and it still gives me the needle,” says Ball.

“We’d won the league, we went away on an end-of-season trip, bumped into some Sunderland fans and they gave us pelters for losing at Tranmere.

“I didn’t like it and I thought ‘if ever I’m in this position again, that won’t happen - we won’t lose the last game of the season’.

“So, three years later, in the run-in for the 105-point season that was still going through my mind.

“From the moment we won promotion at Bury, I was determined that we wouldn’t lose another game until the end of the season. That was my goal as captain.

“And we didn’t - after Bury we had four games left, we won three of those and drew one.

“We were losing at half-time against Birmingham, though, and I kicked off in the dressing room and I think I brought up that Tranmere game.

“We went on to win and afterwards, when we were sitting in the dressing room waiting to go back out and thank the fans, I don’t think I’d ever had the same sense of satisfaction in football - the only time I can think of that has bettered that was watching my daughter get married.

“That’s how good it felt. It was just an unbelievable way to finish the season after winning the title and promotion in the style that we did.”

We Are Sunderland: Kevin Ball captained Sunderland to the First Division title during the club's record-breaking 105-point campaignKevin Ball captained Sunderland to the First Division title during the club's record-breaking 105-point campaign

Ever the competitor, Ball had had to scrap just to be out on the pitch against Birmingham.

“I was meant to be suspended for that Birmingham game,” he says, “because I’d picked up 15 bookings.

“I had to go in front of the FA the day before the game and put my case and, before I left, Reidy said if I got off the suspension he’d pay my fine.

“I remember going in front of these people and just thinking ‘I can’t be suspended tomorrow’ because, believe it or not, I was suspended for the last home game in 1995-96 so I had to go out in a clean kit at the end of the match at Roker Park and pick up the trophy - I was raging and there was no way I was having that this time!

“Anyway, they spoke about my bookings and asked me what I had to say for myself.

“I said ‘I’m Kevin Ball, captain of Sunderland AFC, my job in the team is to do what other people either can’t do, don’t want to do, or don’t enjoy doing, and that’s the physical side which is the part I absolutely love.’

“But then I asked them how many of my bookings were for dissent. They had a look through and said ‘none’, so I said that shows I’m not disrespectful towards referees.

“I said I’ve played more than 40 games this season, so how many physical confrontations are involved? They didn’t know, so I said it’s a minimum of 20 - headers, challenges, tackles, whatever - per game, so more than 800 over the season and I’ve only been booked 15 times which I don’t think is too bad.

“They went out, came back, and said ‘right Kevin, you can play tomorrow’ and that was all I wanted to hear because I wanted to play against Birmingham.

“But they fined me £2,500 and, bearing in mind this was 25 years ago, because that was a colossal amount of money they said I could pay it monthly like something from the Freemans catalogue!

“On the way home I rang Reidy and he said he’d been told he wasn’t allowed to pay my fine - I thought ‘you dodgy so-and-so’ - and that now I had to ring Paul Thirlwell, who was on standby in case I was suspended, and tell him he wasn’t playing!”

We Are Sunderland: Kevin Ball lifting the First Division trophy for Sunderland in 1999Kevin Ball lifting the First Division trophy for Sunderland in 1999

That win against Birmingham was the climax of an incredible season, one that has gone down in Wearside folklore.

It was the season in which Sunderland set a new benchmark with their 105-point haul the highest accumulated by any team in any of England’s top four divisions at the time, although it has since been eclipsed by Reading.

Sunderland also lost only three of 46 league games on their way to the title, won 31 times, conceded just 28 goals, and kept 25 clean sheets.

“That promotion season was an amazing achievement, one I am proud to have been a part of and it’s something that the club should be proud of,” says Ball, who was 34 at the time and turns 60 later this year.

“The club’s past achievements should inspire the players and teams who come after and that 105-point season could be a yardstick that they judge themselves against.

“That’s why, to be honest, it’s disappointing that the club hasn’t done anything to mark the 25th anniversary of it because that record-breaking promotion season was a big moment for Sunderland and the fans - it’s got to have been worth a social media post, at the very least!

“It’s 25 years ago and yet fans who were there at the time can still name the team now, it’s etched in their memories.

“Tommy Sorensen came in at the start of the season and kept so many clean sheets, and in front of him there were partnerships all over the pitch - Mickey Gray and Allan Johnston down the left, Chris Makin and Nicky Summerbee on the right, Andy Melville and Paul Butler in central defence, myself and either Lee Clark or Alex Rae in midfield, and of course Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips up front.

“But every single player in that squad played their part, because don’t forget there were times when Quinny or Kev Phillips were out injured and Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges stepped in, or Martin Scott, Darren Williams, or Jody Craddock - I hate naming names because I hate leaving anyone out and, as I said, everyone was part of it.

“It was a special group, a special dressing room, where everything just clicked and of course Reidy and his assistant Bobby Saxton were instrumental in that and they got it spot on.

“And taking the league by storm was the perfect response after that devastating defeat on penalties against Charlton Athletic in the play-off final at Wembley the year before.”




Seven months after celebrating promotion, and with Sunderland flying high and heading for what turned out to be a seventh-placed finish in the Premier League, Ball’s nine-and-a-half year stay at the club came to an end as he left to join Fulham, managed at the time by his old Roker Park teammate Paul Bracewell.

Ball would later return to Wearside to join the club’s academy coaching staff, and also spent two spells as caretaker-manager.

But among all the highs and lows of his long association with the club - which included two promotions, playing in the 1992 FA Cup final, and the 1998 play-off final - it is the memory of that 105-point season that endures.

“I’ve got a couple of photos in the house from when I played and one of those is of me holding the trophy at the Stadium of Light after the Birmingham game, facing the fans, with my back to the camera,” he says.

“I love it, but at the same time I don’t like it.

“On the one hand I’ve got the trophy and I’m celebrating the city of Sunderland with the supporters, but on the other hand I’m standing in front of a Vaux advertising board and that was the year the brewery closed and it was a big part of the city.

“It’s a bittersweet picture for that reason but, purely from a football point of view, it doesn’t get any better.”