The Wearsiders had slumped out of Division One with just one victory in the final twelve League matches of the 1984/85 season. Just 9,398 had watched the final game of the season against Ipswich Town who by winning 2-1 ended up finishing the season just one point above the relegation zone. The day itself marked a new low in English football with 56 fans killed in the Bradford fire and a 14-year-old Birmingham fan killed when a brick wall collapsed at St Andrews.
Sunderland shocked the football world when they persuaded Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy to take over the reins from the departing Len Ashurst as their manager. The ex-Coldstream Guard looked to mount a promotion charge by signing experienced players such as Frank Gray, David Swindlehurst, Seamus McDonagh, Bob Bolder, Alan Kennedy and George Burley.
£150,000 was invested in Ipswich Town’s Eric Gates, who had twice been capped by England and had won the UEFA Cup with the Tractor Boys in 1981. At Portman Road, Gates had played close behind the front runners, pulling opponents out of position. Possessing the ability to retain the ball he could also shoot surprisingly powerfully for one so slight at just 5’ 6” and weighing just over ten stone.
Gates had made his debut for Ipswich as a substitute against Wolves in October 1973 but it wasn’t until 1977-78 that he became a first-team regular. He netted his first hat-trick against Manchester City two seasons later and scored regularly over the next two seasons as Ipswich finished runners-up in the top flight on both occasions.
In the 1983-84 season, Gates was top scorer with 16 goals, including three against Cardiff City in the FA Cup. Gates had finished as top scorer for Ipswich in the 1984-85 season. When he left Portman Road he had scored 96 goals in 378 first-team outings.
At Sunderland, Gates lined up at number ten alongside centre forward David Swindlehurst. Enthusiasm amongst Sunderland fans was high but it wasn’t until the sixth game of the season before the first goal was scored - when Swindlehurst headed into the Fulwell End net - as Sunderland finally obtained their first point of the season in a 3-3 draw against Grimsby Town. Gates grabbed his first goal of the campaign from the penalty spot. McMenemy’s side finally won a League match at the eighth time of trying when they beat Shrewsbury Town 2-1 away.
In October, Gates scored a crucial winning goal at home to Middlesbrough and he was also on the scoresheet in a 2-1 success on Boxing Day against Sheffield United at Roker Park. It was his eighth League goal. His ninth took over four months to arrive and came as Sunderland beat Shrewsbury 2-0 at home before completing a third consecutive home victory the following Saturday when Stoke were beaten 2-0. The Wearsiders ended up just four points clear of the relegation zone with Gates as top scorer with nine League goals and one in the League Cup.
Gates and Swindlehurst were again paired together up front at the start of the 1986/87 season. It was not a happy partnership and Gates failed to net in the League until the 1—1 draw on Boxing Day at Elland Road. Sunderland’s best performance of the season was at Goldstone Ground in February where Gates was one of the scorers in a 3-0 defeat of Brighton. The victors rose to twelfth in the table but in late March, Sunderland were beaten four games in a row and fell to seventeenth. Gates scored the only goal for Sunderland in the four matches.
A draw at WBA was followed by a 2-1 home defeat against Sheffield United before a Roker Park crowd of just 8,544, the second lowest at home in Sunderland’s post war history. McMenemy was sacked and Bob Stokoe began a second spell in charge at Sunderland when he was appointed as caretaker manager.
Sunderland fell into the relegation zone when beaten 3-2 at Bradford City. Gates hit a crucial equaliser against Leeds at home and in the final match of the season, Sunderland led Barnsley 2-0. Victory would ensure another season in Division Two but with Mark Proctor also missing a penalty a shocked Roker Park crowd of 19,059 saw their side slump to a 3-2 defeat.
Twentieth placed Sunderland faced Gillingham, who had finished in fifth place in Division Three, in the play offs for a place in Division Two the following season. After losing 3-2 at the Priestfield Stadium a 4-3 success at home saw Stokoe’s side beaten on away goals. Sunderland thus fell into the third tier of English football for the first time ever.
Stokoe was to make way for York City manager Denis Smith for the new season, which opened with a 1-0 success at Brentford, where Keith Bertschin - signed towards the end of the previous campaign - scored the goal. The new boys though struggled and on 26 September Chester City stole away from Roker Park with a 2-0 win to leave Sunderland in twelfth place in the table. Smith had signed Marco Gabbiadini from his former club and he made his debut against Chester.
Facing Fulham away, Marco showed his pace and goalscoring ability by hitting both goals and then when paired together he and Gates both netted twice as Wigan were beaten 4-1 at Roker Park. On 3 November Southend were crushed 7-0 at Roker Park with Gates scoring four times and then just before Christmas the former Ipswich player scored all three in a 3-0 win at home to Rotherham.
Going into the New Year in top spot, Sunderland won all four games in January. Late February saw Smith’s side lose two in a row at Bristol Rovers and Aldershot, where former Sunderland man Steve Berry scored the winner. A last minute Wigan equaliser in mid March kept Sunderland off top spot before they squeezed a 1-0 win at Grimsby courtesy of a fine Gabbiadini effort. A 4-1 thrashing of Southend away pushed Sunderland into first place in a race with three other teams - Brighton, Walsall and Notts County - for the two guaranteed promotion spots.
A shock home defeat against Bristol City was soon forgotten as Mansfield were beaten 4-0 on their own ground with Gates netting two, Gabbiadini one and Colin Pascoe netting the other. Before a 7,569 crowd at Vale Park, Sunderland clinched promotion when Gates scored the only goal against Port Vale.
Sunderland clinched the title by beating Northampton Town 3-1 at Roker Park before Rotherham were beaten 4-1 at Roker Park. With Gabbiadini scoring twice he finished with 21 League goals, two in front his striking partner Eric Gates with John McPhail scoring a remarkable sixteen from centre half and of which ten were penalties.
Back in Division Two, Sunderland initially struggled badly but were to eventually end the 1988-89 season in eleventh place. Gabbiadini was again top scorer in the League with 18 goals whilst Gary Owers, with ten, scored two more than Gates. Sunderland scored 60 and conceded 60 League goals in their 46 matches of which the highlight was beating Ipswich Town 4-0 at home with Gabbiadini scoring three before being sent off.
In the summer of 1989, Paul Hardyman was signed to strengthen the Sunderland defence but it was the return of Paul Bracewell from Everton to play in midfield that meant Sunderland fans could entertain hopes of a push for promotion in a season where the derby matches were again on the agenda following Newcastle’s relegation from the top flight at the end of the previous season.
A 0-0 draw against Newcastle at Roker Park was unjust reward for a fine performance by Smith’s side who in mid October were hammered 5-0 at West Ham. Gates scored twice as Barnsley were beaten 4-2 at Roker Park but by now it was more a case of Gates acting as one of the providers for Gabbiadini than scoring himself and he was in fact to score only eight in 46 League games in the season.
The little man was though on the scoresheet when Sunderland travelled to St James Park in late November hitting a late equaliser as Exeter were denied a place in the last eight of the League Cup as Sunderland recovered from being two down to draw 2-2. Gates scored twice in the replay as Sunderland beat the Grecians, backed by almost a thousand fans, 5-2. Sunderland tumbled out of the competition when they were beaten 5-0 in a replayed tie away to Coventry City. The highlight of both matches was Gary Bennett almost throttling David Speedie in front of the Clock Stand paddock. Both men were sent off.
On 4 February 1990 Gabbiadini netted in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in a game Sunderland dominated. Gates was missing from the scoresheet in the best game of the season, a 4-3 victory against WHU in which Kieron Brady scored and was brilliant. Brady also netted the only goal at Valley Parade where - on a day made infamous because of the Poll Tax riots in London - over half the 9,826 fans were away followers. Success at Bramall Lane put Sunderland into a top six play off spot. Despite losing three and drawing one of the final seven games Sunderland progressed to the play offs where they faced Newcastle.
Both games have been well covered on numerous occasions so I will be brief. At Roker Park, Newcastle played poorly and the tie should have been ended long before the 90 minutes and Sunderland were awarded a penalty. Step forward Hardyman, whose shot was a little too close to John Burridge who gathered at the second time of asking before the Sunderland full-backs boot thudded into his head. Queue an almighty scrap at the end of which Hardyman was rightly sent off.
The Newcastle fans celebrated lustily at the final whistle but their opponents had won six of their final seven away matches of the season, knew they could soak up pressure and in all three games between the two sides they had been the superior outfit.
Entering St James Park for the second leg Sunderland fans were informed by the police and stewards that in the event of a pitch invasion we should move from the open terraces we were occupying on the Leazes End to the space behind.
When the game started the noise of the home fans was totally deafening. It was Gates who shut the Mags up when he netted early on at the Gallowgate End.
Sunderland played well, especially the black players Gary Bennett and Reuben Agboola, who ignored constant racist abuse on a ground where in 1985 Bennett and Howard Gayle had both been sent off even though they had bananas thrown at them and were the subject of some vicious tackles by the home players. As an anti-racist since I was a kid, Gary in particular is a hero of mine.
As the final minutes ticked away, any fears that Newcastle might deny Sunderland a deserved place in the play off final at Wembley were ended when the G-Men combined with Marco smashing home the ball before running towards the away fans who were going absolutely mental. Not so some of the home fans who invaded the pitch and despite the police having before the match anticipated that might happen many Newcastle fans did make it to the away end only to decide they had bitten off more than they could chew and instead chose to resort to verbal abuse rather than engage in fisticuffs.
When it calmed down the players, who had left the pitch, returned and Sunderland duly won the game and tie 2-0. The play off final was awful and Sunderland were outplayed by Swindon and lost 1-0. Tony Norman probably prevented the Robins scoring another three or four.
Gates, who became a pro with Ipswich in October 1972, announced his retirement and thus finished his Sunderland career with 54 goals in 199 starts and 19 substitute appearances. Swindon though were to be subsequently found guilty of illegal payments and relegated to the third tier with Sunderland taking their place in Division One. Gates later said if he had known what was to happen he would have sought to obtain a contract to play for Sunderland in the 1990-91 season.
Mark is the co-author of a highly successful book on Victorian football legend Fred Spiksley. There are plans to make Spiksley’s story the basis for a new film on the birth of football and you can help. Please take a look at the trailer, which is presented by Tom Watt, and consider buying some great football products and/or donating towards the production costs.