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Fan Letters: Memories of Sunderland’s last relegation to the 3rd tier; a path to further misery?

“Would season 2018-19 prove to be ‘1987-88 the sequel’ or merely the path to further humiliation for a once-proud club?” asks Roker Report reader Andrew Cockburn. Got something to say? Email us: - we’ll include your message in the next edition.

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Dear Roker Report,

That was an interesting article by Paul Days which looked at our (old) Third Division campaign of 1987-88, and I myself tend to recall that particular season rather well.

At one time, the thought of Sunderland AFC mixing it with the likes of Aldershot, Mansfield, Port Vale and the like (no disrespect intended to those clubs of course) seemed unthinkable, except maybe in cup competitions and/or friendlies. So after the unmitigated disaster which passed for the “Mackemenemy” era at Roker, it came as a huge shock to the system when the somewhat horrifying prospect of Third Division football became reality, courtesy of the rather gripping but ultimately heart-breaking play-off semi-final v Gillingham, Tony Cascarino et al.

In fact, after the second leg at Roker Park on the fateful afternoon of May 17th 1987, I can vaguely recall one or two grown men near to me in the Fulwell End practically in tears at full-time, unable perhaps to comprehend how our once-great club had sunk to a new low.

However at the same time, maybe a harsh lesson was spelt out, i.e. that there is no club, no matter how famous, successful etc. too big to tumble, as the likes of Leeds, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves (who actually went from First to Fourth in successive seasons back in the 1980s) have also found to their cost. A rather harsh lesson indeed.

However, as events turned out, and embarrassing as it may have initially been, the 1987-88 season proved to be the “cold shower” the club so badly needed, a chance to re-assess itself, clear out the “dead wood” and re-build, and under the astute leadership of messrs Smith and Busby, that is what happened.

Indeed, once we really got into our stride, aided by the “G” force of Gabbiadini and Gates, not to mention of course our loyal support (I once heard that nearly half of our Third Division counterparts had their best home gate when Sunderland were the visitors, while the attendance of nearly 30,000 for the “promotion party” in the last home game of the season v Northampton was the best in the North East that particular campaign, even surpassing even the highest home game of Newcastle, who were in the (old) First Division that season) it proved to be quite an enjoyable experience, when we at times scored goals for fun and clocked up one or two high-scoring wins (i.e. 7-0 v Southend at Roker).

And while it may sound a trifle arrogant, there was never much doubt that we’d bounce back to the (old) Second Division at the first attempt - and that is precisely what happened when we went up as undisputed Champions (and with a fair bit to spare), just two years hence we were back in the “big time”, albeit by way of slightly controversial circumstances.

However, it seems that the club has never really capitalized on it‘s full potential/whatever opportunities for progress came it’s way in modern times.

For asides from the real highlights, in my view the record-breaking (new) First Division Championship campaign of 1998-99, and subsequent back-to-back seventh placed finishes in the Premiership, which perhaps gave hope of better things to come, the fare has often been average at best, pretty dire at worst.

Indeed, the current campaign seems even worse than the “record-breaking” relegation campaigns of 2002-03 and 2005-06. Being something of an Sunderland optimist, I still cling to the hope that we may, somehow, some way, stave of the unthinkable (even though we’re now five points from safety, after Barnsley’s draw with Norwich) but deep down inside, something tells me that our local rivalry will be with Bradford City in 2018-19, and that another season in England’s third tier may be spiced up by first-ever encounters with Accrington Stanley (again, no offence intended to the two latter clubs). Maybe a bit harsh, but something which has been on the cards for some time now.

Theres no doubt that the club needs a complete re-think and a total overhaul/re-building job from top to bottom. After the rubbish which has largely been served up on the pitch over the last few years, the poor decisions, bad signings, and just general incompetence which have gripped the club over the last few years and turned it into laughing stock.

Many hoped that season 1987-88 would be the first and last taste of third tier football on Wearside, but sadly history looks like repeating itself. For while no club has a divine right to be successful, to see a club of our stature in it’s current predicament is, to be quite frank, criminal.

So if the worst comes to the worst, would League 1/the third tier again provide the “cold shower”/wake-up call so badly needed? Would the squad, in whatever shape/form it may be come next August, under the leadership of (Chris Coleman?) be able to emulate their predecessors, i.e. Gates, Gabbiadini, Bennett etc. who helped the club recover it’s pride (as well as it’s second-tier status) way back in 1987-88?

Or would the road back to recovery prove to be a much longer affair? What of the massive debt/the possible threat of administration which hangs over the club, might this see if off altogether, thus making any attempt at recovery purely academic? Would the long-suffering fans, whose patience & loyalty has been tested to the limit in this and recent seasons stay loyal, or would The Stadium Of Light resemble something of a “ghost town” on home match days in 2018-19?

To sum up, would season 2018-19 prove to be “1987-88 the sequel”, or merely the path to further humiliation for a once-proud club?

There appears plenty of scope then for a fair bit of conjecture and speculation, re issues which may well have serious and/far-reaching implication(s) re: Sunderland AFC as we all know it, indeed, those aforementioned points may well only be “the tip of the iceberg”.

And its my guess that events in the last nine games of what is turning out to be another truly forgettable season in the history of this club may well provide some clues as to what the immediate future holds.

Maybe then we’d better brace ourselves, for the road ahead maybe about to get even bumpier.

Andrew Cockburn

Ed’s note: I hate talking about us as though we’re already relegated but it has to be done - a way back doesn’t appear clear at the moment, though of course a win at the weekend and results going our way elsewhere could change that. I’m not entirely daunted by the prospect of League One though, much like I wasn’t the Championship. It is what it is. I am more bothered about seeing Sunderland stabilise - irregardless of what league we are in - and building the foundations for success down the line. No more stop-gaps and short-termism, but a new Sunderland with a fresh outlook and hopefully a new owner.

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