OK people, it's derby week! That means we are throwing everything at it this week to give the occasion the build-up it deserves. It also means the one-time return of an old favourite feature. That's right, Roker Relives returns to bring back memories of what is still probably the biggest derby game in history – the 1990 Play Off second leg at St James Park.
Curiously, despite Saturday's encounter being the 145th time we have locked horns with our black and white brethren, this game was the last of the measly 10 cup encounters. After the first leg finished 0-0 at Roker Park, it is no exaggeration to say that the stakes had never been higher in a Tyne/Wear derby than they were in the return leg. Newcastle entered the game as firm favourites having finished 3 places and 6 points clear of the visitors during the league campaign, but Sunderland arrived on Tyneside in confident mood having won 6 of their last 7 games away from home.
With Sunderland missing Paul Hardyman from their side following a red card in the first leg, there was a surprise inclusion for Warren Hawke on the left hand side of midfield. But it was the respective forward lines of the two sides that commanded the attention. Sunderland's devestating and much heralded 'G-Force' of the experienced and wiley Eric Gates and the explosive pace and power of Marco Gabbiadini. At the other end, Newcastle boasted the tubby talents of Mick Quinn, the division's top scorer with 32 goals to his name.
It was Mick Quinn's striking partner Mark McGhee who was first to threaten the make the crucial break-through following the hosts' expected early charge. Bringing down a deep cross on the back post, McGhee struck a left foot volley against the woodwork.
But Sunderland's response was swift and brutal. Marco Gabbiadini hooked a John Kay throw-in into the path of a rampaging Gary Owers, who picked out Eric Gates in the box to prod home the opener in front of a stunned Gallowgate. The deadlock had been broken and the gauntlet laid down. Newcastle were visibly stunned and struggled to muster any discernible reaction, and it was Sunderland who were to threaten again with the same combination down the right. Gabbiadini's crossed for Eric Gates, who with typical guile and panache teed up Gary Owers for close range effort on goal, but he failed to make a strong enough connection and Burridge saved.
As the game opened up, Newcastle started to grow into the game. A long throw trom the right found it's way to Mark McGhee on the back post once again, but this time it was Tony Norman who denied him with a sprawling save. With the first half drawing to a close, Newcastle pressure started to build but, despite a couple of scrambles in the Sunderland box, they were unable to translate that pressure into goals.
If the home supporters were expecting a second half onslaught on the Sunderland goal then they were sorely disappointed. The game entered a consistent battle of imperious defending from Gary Bennett and John McPhail repelling black and white attacks followed by incisive counter attacking football through the pace of Gabbiadini, the industry of Owers, and the cunning of Gates. Roared on by the away support who had packed the end they were now attacking, Gabbiadini entered a race with Kevin Scott in which there would be only one winner, but Burridge saved again. A second Sunderland goal looked inevitable, and even to this day Gary Owers is still probably wondering how he wasn't the man to get it. John Burridge could only palm Gabbiadini's cross straight out to the feet of Owers inside the 6-yard box, but with the goal gaping Mark Stimson somehow managed to block the shot and deflect it for a corner.
The travelling legions from Wearside did not have long to wait for their moment, though, and with 5 minutes left on the clock it was Marco Gabbiadini who wrote himself into Sunderland folklore with what must be one of the most deserved goal in derby history. Gabbers had been utterly tormenting a sluggish Newcastle defence all game. As the hosts committed more men forward in desperate search of an equaliser, Gates and Gabbiadini had the time and space to play an incisive one-two before Marco slotted home a cool left foot finish into the bottom corner.
Sadly, the game is perhaps more famous for the pitch invasion that then ensued from the home supporters in the opposite end of the ground. Hundreds of Newcastle fans streamed onto the pitch, presumably in an effort to force an abandonment of the game. Luckily for all concerned, they were met with a mystical invisible force field spread across the half way line that repelled their attempts to reach the visiting Sunderland fans. The players were taken off the field and completed the game following a 21-minute delay, but the shameful scenes did little to restore the nations faith in football following the Hillsborough disaster. The Daily Mirror described it as football being “dragged into the gutter once more”, Newcastle's chairman Gordon McKeag declared it “a night of shame”.
We will always remember it as a famous night for the right reasons, however. The night we went deep into enemy territory when the stakes had never been higher and outclassed our neighbours into desperation.
I will leave the final word with Gary Owers, who discussed the game with us at length recently:
“The biggest regret about that game was the fact we didn't really get a chance to go and celebrate with the supporters at the end. The police wouldn't let us out. I look at the pictures now and you see so many fans crammed into that end and it's just amazing.
Well we'd been told somewhere along the line that [the pitch invasion] might happen so it wasn't a massive shock. The first one wasn't too bad, but the second one was like “lets get off here as quickly as possible”. If you look at the video, I mean looking back it's hilarious – someone gets a kick up the arse, John McPhail gets a clip round the ear. It's almost comical looking at it now but at the time it wasn't so funny.
It best night of my life in terms of football. Just unbelievable. Up until that moment in time it was probably the biggest Newcastle/Sunderland game ever because of what was at stake, and even more because the first game had ended a draw. We were expected to get beat but we went there in the pouring rain and we just battered them.”