The date was 25th October 1986, almost 31 years ago. We played Birmingham in front of 15,533 fans at Roker and won 2-0, with goals by Frank Gray and Dave Buchanan to leave us a handily placed 5th in the 2nd Division - inside the nascent play-off places. The team was fairly strong, with old warhorses coming to the end of their careers - a template Lawrie McMenemy had used with some success at Southampton. George Burley, Alan Kennedy, Frank Gray, Gary Bennett, Dave Swindlehurst and Eric Gates had won silverware elsewhere and had been cajoled by silvery tongued Lawrie Mac to have one last go with Sunderland. The problem was, this was Sunderland, not Southampton, a temperature difference of about ten degrees and probably five hours less a day of sunshine with the compensatory wind in its place.
The so-called saviours mixed with youngsters like Gordon Armstrong and Paul Lemon, and the season started brightly.
After that victory over Birmingham, the team endured an eight-game winless streak, which saw them sink to 16th place. We won four more, before embarking on another eight-game run without winning which took us to April in 18th place. A paltry two more wins that season saw us finish in 20th position (in a 22-team division). Ordinarily, we would have been relegated straight away. But the play-offs included the third-bottom team of the higher division in those days. So we had a temporary reprieve. A nervy two-legged affair against Gillingham saw us lose out on away goals. We finished the season with 48 points, a total which would have seen us finish in 23rd place in last year’s table (and we played four games less that year).
The difference between 31 years ago and now is that the team looked ok after that game against Birmingham - our own Mark Egan reports that he felt happy with the team, and had no inkling of the relegation that was to follow.
What we would do for a start like that, this season. I, like many, thought we had a decent chance of doing OK in this division with a manager who knows the league and some decent-ish players.
Compare that to today. Twelve games in, over a quarter of the season gone; we’ve amassed a grand total of eight points. If we extrapolate this to the end of the season - I know a dodgy statistical technique, but stay with me here - we’ll have gained 31 points. Last year, Rotherham finished bottom with 23 points, Wigan, second bottom with 42 and Blackburn third lowest with 51 points. Granted, Rovers did get pipped to 21st place by Nottingham Forest on goal difference. If we assume 52 points is a total we need to aspire to stay in this poxy division, we need to win at least 44 points from our remaining 34 games. That’s more than a point a game. So we need to win a few.
Who thinks we can do this under Grayson? We have a team which resembles the quality of 1986/87 but they finished third bottom. Is it time to let someone else have a go at this shambles? And what of Shorty? Is he really prepared to see his investment go up in smoke?
It’s a flaming disaster, with seemingly only one result!
When we went down to the third tier in 1987, Dennis Smith arrived and breathed new life into the club and brought Marco Gabbiadini with him. We won our first game at Brentford with Keith Bertschin scoring the winner and I walked to the game from my house in Kew. Bet that doesn’t happen this time. Either at Brentford next week or when we start only our second ever season in the third tier.