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Cult Heroes: Gordon Armstrong

Cult Heroes: Gordon Armstrong
Cult Heroes: Gordon Armstrong

With an FA Cup semi-final looming should Sunderland overcome Everton at Goodison Park this Saturday lunchtime, it seemed only right that this week's Cult Heroes harked back to a previous run in the famous competition.

2004 was the last time the Black Cats can be said to have had a proper cup run, but this week we'll be looking back slightly further. Twenty years in fact, to 1992, and a certain quarter-final replay against Chelsea.With the game tied at one-all, up stepped a certain Gordon Armstrong to power a header into the far corner, and himself into Sunderland's history books...

Gordon Iain Armstrong was born in a nefarious, bleak neighbourhood in July 1967. Fortunately, this Tyneside resident was soon able to see the light, and quickly decided it was the boys in red and white that would receive his footballing support.

Sixteen years later, the young fan achieved his dream. YTS forms were signed and, six months before his 16th birthday, Gordon Armstrong was on the books of the Wearsiders.

It was two and a bit years later that he made his debut for the Black Cats - on the most miserable terms possible. In the same season they reached the Milk Cup final, Len Ashurst's side saw their relegation sealed away at West Bromwich Albion, with Armstrong's first game coinciding cruelly with the club's return to the second division.

His appearance that day was lost amid a shroud of dejection - little did anyone know that it would be the first of 416 for the Tynesider, in red and white career that lasted a decade. Sandwiched between a rather illustrious pairing of Bobby Kerr and Charlie Buchan, Armstrong is Sunderland's seventh highest appearance maker in history. Further still, he contributed 61 goals - making him one of the few midfielders to score over half a century of goals for the Lads.

Armstrong experienced a range of emotions in the ten years he spent at his boyhood club. His arrival in the first-team squad was mirrored by the arrival of a certain Lawrie McMenemy on Wearside - Armstrong was part of the side that was demoted to the third division for the only time in Sunderland's existence.

He experienced relegation again in 1991. A side led by Denis Smith proved capable of lasting just a solitary year in the pre-Premier League top division, their fate being sealed with a last day defeat against Manchester City at Maine Road.

It was not all bad for Armstrong though. That 1987 relegation was followed up with the comfortable promotion-winning season of 1988, where he combined effectively with the strike partnership of Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates to fire the Black Cats back into the second division at the first time of asking. Supplied ably by Armstrong and his fellow midfielders, Gabbiadini and Gates ended the season with 42 goals between them.

Armstrong experienced the joy of promotion again just two years later. Sunderland went down 0-1 in the play-off final against Swindon Town, but the Robins' financial irregularities meant it was Denis Smith's men that returned to the top division at the start of the nineties. Hence, Armstrong was also a part of the side that famously ran out winners in the semi-final against arch rivals Newcastle at St James's Park (now known as the Sports Direct Arena, for those who are confused).

It is for that cup quarter-final in 1992, though, that Armstrong is so adoringly remembered on Wearside. A tense tussle at Stamford Bridge meant the sides reconvened two weeks later under the floodlights at Roker Park and, with the scores level at one apiece, the away side were well in ascendancy.

In goal Tony Norman had stunningly kept out both Kerry Dixon and Andy Townsend, with the latter also striking the bar. The Sunderland keeper could do nothing however to prevent a young Dennis Wise equalising with six minutes remaining, and now the Blues were pushing for a winner. In a brief moment of respite, the Wearsiders won themselves a late corner.

What followed will live in the memory of all that were there for many a year.

In front of the Roker End, Brian Atkinson swung in a corner from the right. With the ball seemingly on route harmlessly towards the head of the aforementioned Dixon, a packed ground readied itself for thirty minutes of extra time.

But then, from nowhere, summoning up energy from somewhere deep inside having chased the opposition for much of the last 45 minutes, Gordon Armstrong came bounding into the area. Not so much stealing a march on Dixon as powering through him like a freight train, he leapt high into the night sky somewhere above the Chelsea penalty spot, thrusting out his left arm for balance.

With Dixon unable now to jump, overwhelmed by the force and weight of this six-foot Black Cat, Armstrong tensed his neck muscles before jettisoning a mercilessly powerful header deep into the red and white net. The famous old ground erupted, and Armstrong, now surely running on nought but sheer joy and adrenaline, bounded off, arms raised, in the general direction of his supplier Atkinson. The look of incredulousness of the scorer's face as he wheels away in celebration beautifully summarises the magnitude of the goal; older heads in the crowd would instantly cast their minds back to a certain Vic Halom header in the famous cup run of 1973.

Though that particular 1992 run would end in defeat, Armstrong had done enough to seal his place in the Sunderland history books. A testimonial in 1994 against FC Porto was his reward for years of devoted service, before he brought the curtain down on his Sunderland career with a move to Bury in 1996.

The Gordon Armstrong of 2012 remains involved in football, plying his trade as an agent. He has on his books a number of the current Burnley squad - the side at which he made his second greatest number of appearances.

Though he now has a close affiliation with the Clarets, it is Wearside that will always remain his true footballing home - thanks to a match-winning header ten years ago this coming Sunday.

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