After the euphoria of the Third Division Championship campaign of 1987-88 we proceeded to make a quiet start to our Second Division comeback season of 1988-89... failing to win any of our first six league games - proof perhaps that life back in England’s second tier would by no means be a walk in the park, while no doubt some of our fans feared that we may just be in for a repeat of the ill-fated 1986-87 campaign.
Just four days after First Division West Ham had virtually ended our League Cup hopes for the season a with a 3-0 win at Roker there came a turning point of sorts, when we finally broke our duck in the league, and against a side who’d been something of a jinx to us in recent seasons - namely Oldham Athletic.
The Latics were regarded as one of the strongest sides in the Second Division and had missed out on a place in the First Division in the newly-introduced play-offs, two seasons previous. And once more they were looking a good bet to make it to the First Division, having made an encouraging start to season 1988-89, and as such lay in sixth place in the Second Division table prior to their visit to Roker.
Following an emphatic 4-1 win at Manchester City in their first away fixture of the season the men from Lancashire had since struggled on their travels, having lost three on the bounce way from Boundary Park - the latest loss being a rather embarrassing 0-2 League Cup defeat at our not-too-distant Fourth Division neighbours Darlington.
Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of our own League Cup defeat our side showed one or two changes, most notably the return of Billy Whitehurst to partner Marco Gabbiadini up front, while Richard Ord replaced the injured Gary Bennett in central defence.
On a fine day in early October, and attacking the Roker End, we started brightly.
And following the award of a free-kick, Richard Ord picked out Gordon Armstrong on the left with a clever pass, but Gordon’s eventual centre was poor and failed to pick out a colleague. Undeterred, we kept up the early pressure and were rewarded with a goal in the tenth minute - though it was in all truth courtesy of a comedy of errors on the part of Oldham.
Keeper Andy Rhodes threw the ball out to full-back Andy Barlow, who lost possession just inside the penalty area - an error which was to prove fatal, in view of the fact that Marco Gabbiadini was on hand to pounce on such a golden opportunity.
Our young goal-getter took full advantage of the gift-wrapped chance, curling the ball over the stranded keeper into the empty net to give us the lead for the first time in a league game for the first time in the campaign - while no doubt both Rhodes and Barlow were both left somewhat red-faced.
However, the lead was short-lived. Just three minutes later Oldham drew level when a left-wing centre from Andy Ritchie picked out Frank Bunn, who beat Iain Hesford rather comprehensively with a powerful header.
It had been quite an explosive opening to the game and Oldham - boosted by their equalizer - continued to press, and Iain Hesford did well to collect a centre from Denis Irwin with Frank Bunn once again threatening.
Then following the award of a free-kick, after Frank Gray had somewhat harshly been adjudged to have fouled Ritchie, the visitors attacking threat was once again emphasized when Tommy Wright fired a powerful shot into the chest of Hesford.
However, it was Sunderland who came close to grabbing a second goal after twenty-four minutes, when a clever flick from Billy Whitehurst sent Marco Gabbiadini away - and while Marco managed to evade a couple of challenges and also take the ball round Andy Rhodes the angle was against him, and his shot hit the outside of the upright.
Then just after the half-hour mark the visitors enterprising play gained them a second goal. A cross from the left by Oldham substitute Willie Donachie picked out Andy Ritchie, who touched the ball on into the path of Frank Bunn. Bunn gleefully grabbed his second goal of the game, this time with a powerful drive, with Iain Hesford once again helpless.
Thankfully our response to this setback was as swift as Oldham’s had been when we went ahead early on. Colin Pascoe was fouled inside the box by John Kelly, and John McPhail stepped up to convert the penalty kick for his first goal of the season. Marco Gabbiadini was then foiled by Andy Rhodes after he’d been put through by a neat ball by Colin Pascoe, then just before the break, Iain Hesford had to be alert to foil the onrushing Roger Palmer.
2-2 then at the break. It had been an entertaining first-half, and one wondered just what the second-half would have in store.
Just after the interval Marco Gabbiadini’s pace caused some anxiety in the Oldham defence which led to us winning a corner. This was only partially cleared - though when Gary Owers played the ball back into the danger zone, what appeared to be a promising move was halted by an offside decision. Frank Bunn then came close to claiming his hat-trick - but thankfully for us, while his fierce drive had Iain Hesford well beaten, it also travelled across the face of goal and out for a goal kick.
The game then became a shade scrappy, when neither ourselves nor our visitors looked really capable of reproducing the goalscoring form of the first period.
But then in the seventy-second minute we went ahead for the second time in the game.
Iain Hesford began the move when he raced out of his area to clear from Roger Palmer, and when the keeper’s clearance was flicked on by Marco Gabbiadini to Colin Pascoe, the Welshman shrugged off two challenges before going on to score with a low drive which went into the net via the upright.
Roger Palmer then blazed an effort high over the top as Oldham sought to get back into the game, then when play switched to the other end, Billy Whitehurst crossed to find Marco Gabbiadini in a good position, but Marco’s header lacked the power to seriously trouble Andy Rhodes.
Then two minutes from time, we had an incredible let-off.
Iain Hesford came out of his area to relieve a dangerous situation, and on this occasion he headed the ball clear. However, his clearance only travelled as far as Frank Bunn, and the Oldham striker looked to have grabbed his side’s equalizer as well as his hat-trick as his lob sailed over the stranded Hesford and towards the empty net. Thankfully Rueben Agboola popped up to make a dramatic goal line clearance to thus preserve our slender advantage, and also save his keeper’s blushes.
Andy Rhodes then had to scramble along his line to keep out a long-range Steve Doyle effort, but the game ended 3-2 in our favour as we finally got off the mark in the league in 1988-89.
It had been a fine afternoon’s entertainment for a rather disappointing crowd of just 12,529, but the win was to mark the start of a 100% home record for us in October, as further wins against Leeds (2-1), Swindon (4-0) and Blackburn (2-0) were also recorded at Roker during the month as our season began to gain momentum.
At the same time, Sunderland perhaps served notice that we weren’t back in the Second Division merely to make up the numbers.
Unfortunately, a second successive promotion was to prove elusive. We still ended season 1988-89 in a rather comfortable mid-table berth, and there was little doubt that progress was being made as we began to plan for the next phase of our recovery, which would ultimately bear fruit several months hence.