The dreaded May Saturday of 1987
With Sunderland playing all their league football in the top flight until a first ever relegation in 1957/58, a maiden competitive match against Barnsley, who have spent just one season (1997-98) in the top flight in their history, had to wait until a 2-2 draw at Roker Park on 15 November 1958.
Since then the sides have faced each other on a regular basis with the most important clash taking place in Division Two on 9 May 1987, the final day of the ‘86/87 season, when Barnsley won 3-2 at Roker Park.
Before the kick off, two sides - Brighton and Grimsby - were already relegated. Sunderland, Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City and Shrewsbury Town were locked in a battle to avoid finishing in 20th place. The team occupying this position would be forced into the end-of-season plays offs alongside the third, fourth and fifth placed finishers in Division Three. The ultimate winners would play the 1987/88 season in Division Two and other three would face each other again in Division Three.
A late equaliser by Gordon Armstrong at Millwall in midweek had dragged Sunderland out of the relegation spot and into 18th place. Before kick off, the table was as follows...
With Birmingham and Shrewsbury facing each other at St Andrews, Sunderland knew for certain that by beating Barnsley they would avoid the play offs.
Backed by a highest crowd of the season - 19,059 - Sunderland started the match in confident fashion and should have scored only for Mark Procter to lash wild. Keith Bertschin then missed by scooping his shot over the bar but on 28 minutes it was Bertschin who rose to head past Clive Baker to make it 1-0.
Frank Gray made it 2-0 soon after with a powerful drive into the roof of the net. Iain Hesford in the home goal then denied Gwyn Thomas but just before the interval Joe Joyce beat the Sunderland keeper to make it 2-1.
On the restart Sunderland still pressed forward but Bertschin again missed when well placed. Then on 61 minutes Eric Gates was fouled in the box. Mark Proctor was generally pretty good with spot kicks. The former Liverpool player had scored five during the season and he had also netted on the final day of the previous campaign when Sunderland beat Stoke 2-0 to compete a last dash gap to avoid relegation. Proctor’s shot was saved by Baker and this appeared to drain Sunderland over the next few minutes.
Former Sunderland played Roger Wylde tied the scores up at 2-2 on 65 minutes and then John Macdonald put Barnsley ahead for the first time soon after. With Huddersfield beating Millwall and Birmingham losing against Shrewsbury, Sunderland were now in the dreaded 20th place. Only victory would take them out of the play off zone.
Urged on by caretaker manager Bob Stokoe - who had been appointed after Laurie McMenemy was sacked following an April defeat at home to Sheffield United - Sunderland pressed frantically and Proctor had a free-kick superbly saved by Baker before substitute David Buchanan was too slow in shooting and when he was dispossessed, Sunderland’s final chance was lost.
With Huddersfield and Shrewsbury winning their games, the side from Roker Park left the pitch knowing they would face Gillingham, who had finished in fifth place in Division 3, in the play off semi-finals for a place in Division Two the following season. Sunderland lost out over two games on away goals to the Kent side who were then defeated in the play off final by third placed finishers Swindon Town, who thus took Sunderland’s place in Division Two with the Wearsiders dropping down to play for the first time ever in Division Three the following season.
Earlier links - Sunderland-born Barnsley stopper
Of course, despite there being no games between the sides until 1958 there were still many links between Sunderland and Barnsley before then. The most successful period in Barnsley’s history was between 1910 and 1912 when the Tykes twice made it to the FA Cup final, losing out to Newcastle after a replay in 1910 and capturing the famous trophy by beating WBA, again after a replay, in 1912. In goal for Barnsley in 1910 was Sunderland born Fred Mearns, who in the 1901-02 season twice played for his hometown including a 1-0 victory at Roker Park against Aston Villa.
Transferred to Kettering Town he saved seven penalties the following season to become known as ‘the penalty king.’ After spells with a number of clubs, Mearns joined Barnsley for the start of the 1909/10 season. Unable to dislodge Jack Cooper as first team keeper it was not till 1 January 1910 that Mearns made his debut for Barnsley after Cooper sustained a serious injury that ruled him out for the rest of the season.
In the FA Cup, Barnsley beat Blackburn, Bristol Rovers, WBA and QPR to set up a semifinal tie with Everton. After drawing 0-0 at Elland Road the replay took place on the newly opened Old Trafford and Mearns was the hero when he saved a penalty taken by Alex ‘Sandy’ Young, who depending upon which story you believe was later hung for sheep stealing in Australia or died in a Scottish mental asylum. Barnsley went on to win the game 3-0.
Mearns played superbly in the final at the Crystal Palace against Newcastle United and he was only ten minutes away from collecting a winners medal after Barnsley forward Harry Tufnell scored in the first period. Mearns was beaten when Rutherford headed home and although he again played with aplomb in the replay the Sunderland lad could not prevent Albert Shepherd scoring twice as Newcastle won 2-0.
Mearns was transferred to Leicester Fosse in January 1911 and later returned to his native Sunderland to play for Newcastle City, West Stanley and Sunderland West End respectively. Fred died in Sunderland on 22 January 1931.
Mark Metcalf is the co-author with Barnsley historian David Wood of 'Lifting the Cup: the story of battling Barnsley 1910-1912'.