Spencer Vignes was football correspondent for The Observer in the North East for many years. He is the author of Lost In France, the biography of former Sunderland goalkeeper Leigh Roose who died in World War One.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ so goes the very first line of Charles Dickens’ round-up of Sunderland’s 1987/88 season. Ah, there’s no fooling you, is there? Mind you, the opening words of A Tale of Two Cities could easily have applied to two football clubs pitched into the eighties abyss of mullet haircuts and crumbling terraces - who managed to deliver themselves from evil pronto.
In August 1987 Sunderland fans woke up to the reality that their club had been relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time ever. The reason I remember it so vividly is that my team, Brighton & Hove Albion, went down with them from the old Second Division just four years after gracing the top flight and appearing in an FA Cup final.
Long story cut short, things worked out fine for the pair of us. Both Sunderland and Brighton went straight back up at the end of that season through the automatic promotion places, you lot as the divisional champions.
It’s only now, 30 years later, that I realise what a remarkable achievement that was. Clubs hardly ever bounce back at the first attempt - instead they ‘consolidate’ (that’s industry shorthand for ‘stagnate’) or, in many cases, end up going down again.
So, given that Sunderland are to all intents and purposes relegated, what will the club need to do over the weeks and months to come in order to earn redemption next season (barring, of course, the given of finding a new owner?)
First thing’s first – you need to build a team that can play a bit, yet also mix it with the nastiest middle-weights that Walsall and Southend have to offer.
Sunderland’s class of 1987/88 featured talents such as Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates alongside fully paid up members of the awkward squad like Gary Bennett and John MacPhail – guys who, it should be said, could also play a bit. Sunderland had, lest it be forgotten, been relegated from the top flight in 1985 and come dangerously close to a double-drop in 1986. On paper, those teams shouldn’t have struggled. But struggle they did. The dead wood needed to be replaced, and that’s exactly what happened over the course of the summer of 1987.
Second thing - post relegation - a club needs to hit the ground running. The Sunderland team of 1987/88 were up for it right from the word go. A win on the opening day at Brentford, another win on the road at Doncaster, a 4-1 mauling of Mansfield Town at Roker Park, and they were most certainly away.
Honestly, if you think the Championship is relentless, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Like something out of the Apollo space programme, a club needs that early momentum in the third tier to propel them to strange new worlds where no man has gone before. Northampton, in other words.
A false start in League One and you are nearly always looking down the table for the rest of the season, not up. That applies as much now as it did in 1987.
Third, you’ve got to have the right manager. This is where I fear for Chris Coleman. Now, I’m a big fan of Chris. I might be a Brighton fan but my parents were Welsh and I’ve lived in Cardiff for thirteen years. The man’s a God down here - always will be - but where’s his experience of League One where life is, how can I put it, slightly more agricultural than Euro 2016?
Denis Smith, Sunderland’s gaffer during the 1987/88 campaign, knew every curve in the lower league road having guided York City to promotion from the old Fourth Division in 1984 with 101 points. His vast contacts book and experience as a player further up the leagues with Stoke meant he was just the right man not only for Sunderland’s Third Division challenge but to ensure the club continued its upward trajectory once promotion had been achieved.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d love Coleman to succeed, providing of course he stays, but the Welshman’s an unknown quantity at that level. Whisper it, but I’m not convinced he’ll have what it takes.
No doubt about it, the writing is on the wall in terms of Sunderland’s existence in the Championship, we just can’t read what it says yet. But with the club’s predicament worsening by the week, it would be suicide not to plan ahead for next season. Still, it could be worse. At least mullets, unlike relegation, have been consigned to the history books.