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THEN AND NOW: How does 2018’s Sunderland compare to their 1987 third-tier counterpart?

Sunderland have only ever been a third tier club twice in their history - now, of course, and during the 1987-88 season. We go in depth to compare the situations that the club has found itself in on both occasions - can we take heart from how we coped back then?

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The Gaffers

During both periods Sunderland have been led by determined characters, who have a drive to succeed and are hungry to manage at the highest level. They had very different playing backgrounds, where Smith played at the highest level for a long period of time and arguably should have had England caps to add to his achievements. Both joined Sunderland at similar stages of their managerial careers at similar ages eager to progress the club back up to the highest level.

Denis Smith was appointed Sunderland manager at the age of 39 having been player-manager and manager of York City since 1982. Success came very quickly for York under Denis Smith in Division Four, where they became the first team to break the 100-point barrier gaining promotion in his second season at Bootham Cresent.

After promotion to Division Three, solid finishes of 8th in 1984/5 and 7th in 1985/6 followed, all achieved while suffering frustrations of having to sell his better players. This came to a head the following year with falling out with the club’s directors and a poor finish of 20th in Division Three at the end of the 1986/87 season before joining Sunderland in May 1987.

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Jack Ross started his coaching career as assistant manager to Alan Adamson at Dumbarton in 2011, becoming caretaker manager when Adamson left the club in October 2012. Ross continued in his role as assistant manager to the new manager Ian Murray staying with the club until joining the Hearts coaching staff in July 2014.

This lasted until October 2015 ahead of becoming manager of Alloa in December 2015. Despite being unable to avoid relegation in the remaining part of the season he remained to begin the turn-around at Alloa, experiencing a club-record 10-game winning run and achieving a 0-0 draw with Celtic with the part-time side.

St Mirren came calling in October 2016 after the impressive start at Alloa, leaving to steer them to safety in the Scottish Championship in 2016/17. St Mirren came out of the blocks in 2017/18 building a fourteen point lead by February and eventually winning the title also bagging himself the PFA Scotland Manager of the Year.

Ross was then appointed Sunderland manager on the 25th May 2018 just ahead of his 42nd birthday.

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The Club

Sunderland AFC is a completely different organisation now to the one Denis Smith took charge of in 1987. Football was on the cusp of a change that would leave a lot of clubs lagging behind at the time, and that gap has only widened as the years have gone on.

Sunderland were at real risk of spending a prolonged period in the lower leagues if promotion was not achieved quickly.

Two years later would see the Hillsborough disaster which quickly resulted in the Taylor Report, which in turn saw capacity’s of grounds such as Roker Park to be dramatically reduced. Also in hindsight the formation of the Premier League and the injection of money at the higher levels was only five years away.

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Had Sunderland been languishing in the bottom half of the football league structure during those changes, our future could have been very different.

Sunderland, after having moved to the Stadium of Light in 1997, is now a huge club in comparison and this brings a different kind of pressures in terms of being a big scalp for opposition as well as the pressure to achieve immediate promotion.

We would hope that, with the size of the club now that it is just a matter of time before a return to the Championship but as ever in football, nothing is guaranteed.

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The Squads

The pitfalls of relegation in 1987 had its own issues in terms of big earners still on the books, but it is no comparison to the issues found at the club after the most recent fall to the third tier of English football.

Significantly more traffic in both directions have been seen this summer than back in 1987, although the current transfer window setup may have a lot to do with that.

Having said that, four players in the starting eleven on the opening day of 1987 at Brentford were making their debuts for the club (Steve Hardwick, John Kay, John MacPhail and Gary Owers) versus five players making their debuts (Jon McLaughlin, Glenn Loovens, Alim Ozturk, Luke O’Nien and Chris Maguire) at home to Charlton this season.

It’s difficult to assess the current squad after eight games but on paper both squads have a blend of youth and experience. Three players from the youth setup started more than 30 games in 1987/88 through Gary Owers, Paul Lemon and Gordon Armstrong.

Already this season three players from the youth setup have been ever presents in the form of George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Josh Maja.

Josh Maja has scored 5 in the first 8 games but it does look at this early stage like we might need to spread the goals around the squad more than we did back in 1987 where Gabbiadini and Gates scored 40 out of the 91 scored that season. Also looking at the statistics from 1987, I doubt if any of our defenders will match John MacPhail’s 16 goals this season (including 11 penalties).

It does highlight the significance of the business we do in the January transfer window. Long gone are the days of being able to strengthen the squad all the way until March, with Denis Smith doing exactly that in the form of Marco early on and Colin Pascoe late on deadline day to see us over the line.

It was in fact so late on deadline day that Denis Smith had to drive from Sunderland to Swansea himself to get Pascoe to sign, then drive the forms to Blackpool to get the transfer confirmed due to fax confirmations not being permitted at the time.

With a bit of luck we will be in the mix come Christmas where Jack Ross can implement a plan with what sounds like limited funds based on recent comments. This plan will depend hugely on players coming back to full fitness and then staying fully fit, the likes of Duncan Watmore and now the long term fitness of Charlie Wyke will be important when the time comes.

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First Eight Games

It’s already been documented our starts we’re generally similar, but the stats shows it was incredibly similar home and away - including goals scored and conceded as well as specific results.

Looking at the individual games, in both seasons we won the opening day fixture by the odd goal, with Keith Bertschin scoring the winner at Brentford in 1987, although that winning goal coming in the 46th minute rather than injury time in the case of Lynden Gooch against Charlton Athletic this year.

The opening victories were followed up with 1-1 draws and incredibly, also in both campaigns, we won our fourth game by 4-1, at home to Mansfield in 1987 and away to Gillingham this year. In addition to that, the lads came from behind to win both of those games by three goals.

A home crowd of 13,994 had to wait until the 63th minute on the 31st August 1987 for an equaliser by Gordon Armstrong, before taking the lead a couple of minutes later through a MacPhail penalty.

Early to mid-September has also looked almost identical, with two draws followed by a defeat.

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What Happened Next?

I think we all know that back in 1987/88 we went on to amass 93 points on our way to winning Division Three, but after the defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion we then lost our next game at home to Chester City.

This left Sunderland in 12th place in Division Three and experiencing our lowest ever league position. The 12,760 who witnessed that home defeat to Chester City were not only were in attendance for the second defeat in straight games, but also saw the significant introduction of the new signing that would turn the season around. It saw the debut of new signing Marco Gabbiadini.

After the Chester City defeat Sunderland went on to record six straight victories with Marco scoring 7 goals in those 6 games. This run took Sunderland back to the top where, except for a blip in March, they remained until eventually winning the title.

As for 2018/19 – who knows - we’ve had a solid start considering the turmoil of the last 24+ months. Currently 2 points better off this time than back in 1987 where we went on to win the title, I’m sure we’d all take that ending if we were offered that outcome this time.

We might not have a mudslide like we did at Wigan as we did last time, but it already looks like it’s going to be fun finding out.