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Tales From The Stands: Sunderland 2-0 Birmingham (1986) - About as good as it got that year!

Who remembers when goals from Frank Gray and Dave Buchanan put the seal on a fantastic Sunderland performance at Roker Park against Birmingham City back in 1986? Join Andrew Cockburn for a trip down memory lane...

Danny Roberts

After a nightmarish 1985-86 campaign, when the inignomy of a first-ever demotion to Division Three was only avoided by the narrowest of margins, many of us no doubt hoped that season 1986-87 would bring better fortunes.

While we suffered a rather embarrassing League Cup 1st round defeat at the hands of York City, we made a fairly promising start to our league campaign with a win at Huddersfield on the opening day, followed a draw with Brighton in our first home match of the season.

There then followed a rather humiliating 1-6 reverse at Blackburn in the third match of the season, though this proved to be one of just two defeats from nine league games (the other being a 2-3 defeat at Derby, and after we’d led 2-0 at one stage), as we gradually worked our way up the Second Division table.

Thus, after a 1-1 draw in a first-ever league encounter v Reading at Roker we stood in seventh place, and things were beginning to look promising as we went into our next game at home against Birmingham City.

The Blues, following relegation from the First Division at the end of the previous season, had begun the current campaign like ourselves in promising style and had actually topped the table at the end of August. Since then they’d suffered a form lapse which had seen them sink to mid-table, though they’d returned to winning ways with a 4-1 home win v fancied Crystal Palace a week before their trip to Roker. Brum were not going to be pushovers as we sought to return to winning ways on home turf.

On a bright afternoon near the end of October we began attacking the Fulwell End facing a stiff breeze, and almost grabbed the lead with just forty seconds gone on the clock.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Everton Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

The move was instigated by Paul Lemon, who burst in the area before crossing to Dave Buchanan, whose flying header was brilliantly saved by City keeper Roger Hansbury at the expense of a corner. Lemon himself took the flag-kick and picked out Gary Bennett, whose close-range effort was only narrowly off-target.

Buchanan then came close with a fine effort after having been set up by the persistence of Dave Swindlehurst, before centres from first Paul Lemon and then Alan Kennedy caused a fair amount of anxiety in the Birmingham defence as we maintained our early pressure. Then when play briefly switched to the other end, following a mistake from Steve Doyle which allowed Andy Kennedy to break free, Iain Hesford came to our rescue when he blocked the striker’s shot before diving on the rebound.

Normal service was soon resumed, and a deep centre from Paul Lemon was headed behind by Tommy Williams for another corner, which had to be delayed slightly, while Dave Swindlehurst received treatment for an injury.

When play resumed Lemon’s kick picked out Swindlehurst, who won in the air to find Gordon Armstrong, whose own header was straight into the arms of Roger Hansbury.

Paul Lemon then needed treatment after he was brought down by Martin Kuhl, though the free-kick proved fruitless. Then in what was another rare attack by the visitors, Iain Hesford had to be alert to prevent Wayne Clarke from gaining possession.

We then failed to take advantage of two free-kicks in quick succession but came close to taking the lead in the nineteenth minute, when Steve Doyle had a shot beaten out by Roger Hansubry, before the ball was scrambled away for another corner kick. When this reached Gary Bennett, his header forced another great save from Hansbury.

Soccer - Endsleigh League Division One - Notts County v Sunderland - Meadow Lane Photo by Phil O’Brien/EMPICS via Getty Images

Wayne Clark then came close with a twenty-year effort after a lucky break went Birmingham’s way, then we missed a great chance to grab the lead when Frank Gray set Paul Lemon free - unfortunately, the latter’s cross just eluded three of his colleagues as the ball flashed across the face of goal.

Alan Kennedy then had a shot blocked behind for a corner which came to nothing, but then Roger Hansbury continued to be Birmingham’s saviour with another superb save, this time when he denied Gary Bennett. Gordon Armstrong then wasted a good chance by shooting straight at Hansbury when he had colleagues available in support and perhaps better place to take advantage, then Paul Lemon was just off-target with a well-struck free-kick.

It seemed that in spite of our relentless pressure we’d end up frustrated, but six minutes before the break we finally got our due reward.

A centre from George Burley was headed out by Vince Overson, but only as far as Frank Gray, who let fly with a thunderous twenty-yard effort which left Roger Hansbury helpless as it flew into the net - much to the delight of the home crowd.

Having finally cracked Birmingham’s rather dogged resistance, the question most folks inside Roker were probably asking now was: can we add to our goal tally?

The answer was yes, though only on one further occasion, just sixty seconds into the second period. Paul Lemon had a fierce shot charged down, and while Roger Hansbury managed to block Dave Swindlehurst’s follow-up effort, the keeper was powerless to prevent Dave Buchanan from netting his eighth league and cup goal of the season so far.

Gordon Armstrong Sunderland 1988 Photo by Tom JenkinsAllsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

The one-way traffic continued towards The Blues goal, and Buchanan and Gordon Armstrong combined to set up a great chance for Steve Doyle, whose well-hit shot was only just wide of the target.

Then Iain Hesford - who’d been a virtual spectator so far - was called into action when he had to react smartly to prevent a free-kick from reaching Steve Whitton. We then put together our best move of the game so far when Dave Buchanan picked out Paul Lemon with a great ball, and the latter’s cross looked destined to pick out the unmarked Dave Swindlehurst, before Tommy Williams made a timely intervention.

But we kept up the pressure, and following a corner a Dave Buchanan header beat Hansbury only for Williams to clear from the line. Then in another rather rare attack by the visitors, Iain Hesford was forced to go down smartly at the foot of his post to cut out a centre from substitute Stuart Storer which looked like reaching Andy Kennedy.

It seemed that we’d gone off the boil at this stage, and Gary Bennett had to be alert on two occasions to relieve dangerous situations as the visitors made a determined bid to get back into the game. It was perhaps no real surprise when Eric Gates came on for Steve Doyle with eighteen minutes left to play as we sought to regain our control of the game.

Eric Gates Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

We ended the game on a high, and could well have added our to our lead after squandering a number of chances, but the game ended at 2-0 - a scoreline which tend to flatter Birmingham somewhat. The win also lifted us up to the heady heights of fifth place in the Second Division table, prompting talk of promotion.

But sadly - and not for not for the first time - optimism again turned to despair as we were brought back down to earth with a rather resounding bump, losing the next two games at Sheffield United (1-2), and at home v WBA (0-3), as the season entered November.

November was probably the blackest month for us in 1986-87, for it produced just two points from 1-1 draws at Grimsby and at Roker against Shrewsbury, concluding with a 0-2 reverse at Crystal Palace - hardly the trademarks of a side with genuine promotion ambitions.

In fact, this rather bleak period more or less set the tone for the rest of the 1986-87 season which proceeded to canter rather alarmingly downhill, save for maybe one or two brief moments, which suggested we might have just avoid the worst episode so far in our long and proud history. Sadly, it was not to be, and none of us will need reminding of what happened come the conclusion of 1986-87.