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How Sunderland - armed with the G Force - handled relegation to the third tier in epic fashion

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With the club on the precipice of their first relegation to the third tier since 1987, Paul Days takes a look back at our sole season in Division Three and how Sunderland managed to rebound from their lowest point in the most epic fashion.

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For a club like Sunderland, the prospect of life in the Third Division (or, as we know it these days, League One) is a sobering experience. As if to emphasise the point the season kicked off at Griffin Park, Brentford. Sunderland won, thanks to a good goal from Keith Bertschin.

Sunderland then drew at home with Bristol Rovers, before travelling to Belle Vue, the home of Doncaster Rovers. The smallest crowd ever to watch a Sunderland league match was present - just 2,740 - and with the Wearside fans caged in the open end it was not an impressive site. The fact that we managed to win was a blessing, and Sunderland then followed this up with a 4-1 thrashing of Mansfield Town.

Then things went a bit pear shaped. Three draws, then two consecutive defeats, saw Sunderland in 12th place - the lowest league placing in their history.

But, help was at hand in the shape of a new signing, Marco Gabbiadini.

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After a home defeat at the hands of Chester City, Sunderland took everyone to task.

They won six off the belt, lost to Notts County - and then came a rout.

On the evening of 17 November 1987, Southend United arrived on Wearside. The game started with the South coast team playing reasonably well and indeed they hit the woodwork before Sunderland even scored - but then came the avalanche.

In front of nearly 16,000 people Eric Gates scored four, his fellow strike partner Gabbiadini added another and then Brian Atkinson got a brace. The final score of 7-0 had everyone looking for the record books.

Sunderland were now in their stride and the next fourteen games brought nine wins and five draws, going three months without a defeat. Even two defeats (consecutively at Bristol Rovers and Aldershot) didn’t disguise the inevitable.

Sunderland were going straight back up.

The 12th of March saw a game and a half at Wigan, where the travelling Roker Roar decided to cake themselves from head to foot in mud as they slid down the bank at one end.

What sort of state some of them must have been in for the journey home doesn’t bear thinking about, but the result wasn’t what Sunderland wanted.

The Tics scored a disputed equaliser almost at the death - replays showed that the ball had clearly been kicked out of Hesford’s hands. Then came another slight blip at Bootham Crescent - a 2-1 defeat to York City.

Sunderland manager Denis Smith and the club chairman argue with fans (left foreground, backs to the camera). A broken goal post can be seen in the background. Sunderland lost the match 2-1.
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Light relief came in the shape of the Mercantile Credit Football Festival at Wembley Stadium to celebrate the centenary of the Football League. At the tournament Sunderland didn’t last long and were defeated on penalties by Wigan Athletic after a goalless draw.

By the back end of April it was becoming clear that a couple more victories would secure Sunderland’s promotion back to the second tier. Mansfield Town and a midweek 4-0 success paved the way for a game with Port Vale in the Potteries. Win, and Sunderland were promoted.

On a brilliant day for the travelling fans, Eric Gates scored the all-important goal to seal victory and promotion. It was most opportune that there was a supermarket selling champagne right next to Vale Park. The Sunderland fans took full advantage.

On Easter Monday came the visit of Northampton Town to Roker Park - the North East’s biggest gate of the season, 29,454, turned up to watch Sunderland win 3-1 and claim the Third Division championship.

With fancy dress being the order of the day, Dracula and The Pink Panther made their way to Rotherham United for a final day party. The fact that Sunderland won 4-1 was almost immaterial, that Sunderland had fun was the main thing. There were some sore head back in the North East that night.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing is that Sunderland got out at the first attempt and had now won three out of the four Football League titles.

Any longer and the consequences just didn’t bear thinking about. We bade farewell to the Third Division, and in doing so, hoped that Sunderland would never go back.