Our return to the First Division in the summer of 1990 was still greeted with much enthusiasm and expectation from all connected with Sunderland AFC - but, perhaps not too surprisingly, life at the top proved to be a difficult adjustment to make.
In spite of us playing some good football at times, we still tended to hover around the lower regions of the First Division table.
December was a particularly bleak month for us, as we gained just one point from six games after a thrilling 3-3 draw at Spurs, when we’d led 2-0 and 3-1 at one stage, only to be pegged back (not for the only time during 1990-91, it must be said).
Following the thriller at White Hart Lane, there followed four successive defeats against Norwich and Leeds at Roker, then in successive trips to the capital at Crystal Palace and QPR over the Festive period. In fact, the latter reverse against QPR, who like ourselves were struggling at the wrong end of the First Division, actually meant we dropped into the bottom two for the first time in the campaign as the old year ended.
Thus our first game of 1991 at Roker Park versus Southampton - who’d also endured something of a struggle so far but who lay a fairly comfortable seven points above us - was in effect another six-pointer.
I recall thinking at the time that our fixtures for 1990-91 were published several months earlier, that the date for our home fixture against The Saints was rather bizarre to say the least. New Year’s Day of all times - not the most convenient of dates, at least as far as the players, officials and fans of Southampton were concerned - for their journey to the North East is rather arduous at the best of times.
In spite of the freezing cold and wet conditions, a rather healthy crowd of just under 20,000 (including a coachload or so of hardy souls from the South Coast) turned up at Roker on the first day of 1991, most of whom no doubt hoping to see if we could ring in the New Year with a much-needed win.
Due to injuries to our main striking duo of Marco Gabbiadini and Peter Davenport we had to go with an untried combination of Warren Hawke and David Rush up front, while in the Southampton side was a certain Alan Shearer, who was still learning his trade - thankfully on this particular occasion he was to end up somewhat frustrated.
Attacking The Fulwell End in the first-half with the advantage of the elements, we began fairly brightly, but the first real chance came the way of the visitors when Glenn Cockerill hit a fierce drive which skimmed the top of Tony Norman’s crossbar. We then came close when Colin Pascoe went on an impressive run which looked as if it may bring dividends... unfortunately the Welshman’s final shot hit the side netting.
Our youthful strike partnership of Rush and Hawke combined well, but the former’s shot was off-target. And while we had the better of the exchanges in the first period - where we forced no less than eight corners - we still seemed to lack that vital cutting edge up front, and it was perhaps no real surprise that the half-time break arrived with the scoreline blank.
Just three minutes into the second-half we forced a vital breakthrough, albeit from the penalty spot. A promising move involving Gary Owers and David Rush had set up the chance for Colin Pascoe, but as he advanced into the Southampton box he was upended by Glenn Cockerill, leaving the referee with option but to award a spot-kick.
Kevin Ball did the honours, which brought much relief to most of those inside Roker.
We could have added to our lead shortly afterwards, when Tim Flowers failed to get any real distance to a punched clearance following a Paul Hardyman centre, but Warren Hawke was unable to direct his header on target.
This miss may well have proved costly, for from then on the better chances fell to Southampton as we tended to live on our nerves somewhat. Alan McLoughlin fired just wide following a mistake form Gordon Armstrong, then when Rod Wallace had a shot blocked Alan Shearer rather thankfully was unable to capitalize when the rebound came his way. A diving header from McLoughlin was then just wide, the same player was then denied by Tony Norman, then Matthew Le Tissier fired straight at Norman as The Saints strove for an equaliser in rather determined fashion.
We held out for a vital win - our first in the league since beating Luton at Roker the previous October, while it was our first clean sheet since the win at another of our companions-in-distress, Sheffield United, at the end of November.
The victory also lifted us out of the bottom three and up to seventeenth place in the First Division, but perhaps not too surprisingly, we were soon brought back down to earth again.
For just four days after the vital Saints win we suffered what had now become our customary third round FA Cup exit, this time at First Division title favourites Arsenal in spite of a battling performance. Then a week hence we went down again on our travels, this time at Old Trafford, the 3-0 scoreline in Manchester United’s favour not really an accurate reflection of the extent to which The Red Devil’s had dominated proceedings, when in all truth we were lucky not to have ended up on the wrong end of a cricket score.
Unfortunately, after the rather welcome Southampton success we were to register just three more wins at Roker in the 1990-91 campaign, and while these were all against decent sides in the shape of Chelsea, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace, it was this sort of inconsistency and overall lack of quality which was contributed in quite a large way to our eventual downfall.
In fact, when Southampton gained revenge for their Roker defeat with a 3-1 win in another vital relegation clash at The Dell in April, no doubt quite a few of us sensed that it was the beginning of the end of another all-too-brief taste of life amongst England’s elite.
Sadly that’s exactly how it turned out, though it has to be said we didn’t go down without a fight against Manchester City in the last league at Maine Road, but in the end our fate was all somewhat inevitable.
Sadly, not for the last time.