After successfully consolidating back in the Second Division in 1988-89, season 1989-90 saw us begin the next phase of our recovery operation when we would make a bid for a return to the First Division.
Our league form throughout 1989-90 had tended to be fairly solid rather than spectacular, indeed, at one stage we endured a winless league run of seven games before registering our first success of 1990 near the end of February, when we defeated Brighton 2-1 at home.
There then followed a mini barren spell of sorts at Roker, when we were held 2-2 by mid-table Leicester and narrowly beaten 0-1 by Second Division leaders Leeds before we got back to winning ways on home soil by 4-3 v West Ham - a win that left us just two points off the play-off zone and with everything to play for as the season entered the home straight.
And a week after the West Ham win we concluded our commitments for March with a visit to struggling Bradford City - my first-ever Sunderland away game. It seemed on paper at least an ideal chance to further reinforce our promotion bid, but with Bradford battling to avoid the drop to the Third Division they would no doubt be equally needy of the three points at stake.
A keenly-contested encounter was surely in store - which is exactly how it proved to be, though as it turned out the contest would be decided by one piece of individual magic.
So on a fine, sunny afternoon we began attacking the Kop End of Valley Parade, but the first genuine chance fell to Bradford. Gordon Armstrong was pulled up for a foul on ex-Manchester United & Newcastle winger Alan Davies, and when the free-kick was played into the path of Brian Tinnion, his low drive was only inches wide of Tony Norman’s left-hand post.
Paul Hardyman then wasted a free-kick opportunity before Gary Owers was well off-target with a long-range effort. Gordon Armstrong then had a powerful shot charged down, and when the Tynesider tried again from the rebound he failed to get his shot on target.
Then a neat move involving Marco Gabbiadini, Colin Pascoe and Kieron Brady set up another chance for Gary Owers, who was denied a clear run on goal by rather marginal offside decision.
Undeterred, we maintained the pressure and had a great chance to go in front after twelve minutes. Paul Bracewell chipped the ball into the penalty area, and with the Bradford defence seeking an offside decision the ball fell nicely to John McPhail, who’d netted the winner in the previous meeting at Roker earlier in the season. On this occasion the Scot was unable to take advantage, when he shot straight at City keeper Paul Tomlinson.
Then when play switched to the other end we had a lucky escape.
Gordon Armstrong was forced to concede a corner, and when the flag kick was only partially cleared the ball fell kindly to Brian Mitchell, whose angled drive hit the side netting.
We then had two more great chances to nudge ahead. Firstly, a jinking run by Kieron Brady left two Bradford defenders trailing in his wake, and when he finally picked out Marco Gabbiadini our goal-getter-in-chief hit a powerful twenty-five yard drive which just cleared the crossbar. And just sixty-seconds later, Colin Pascoe sent in a fierce effort of his own, which was well saved by Paul Tomlinson.
It had been fairly even up until then, but just past the half-hour mark another good chance fell to The Bantams when a left-wing centre picked out Brian Mitchell, whose fierce low drive brought Tony Norman to his knees.
Shortly afterwards, we should have gone in front.
Another clever chip into the Bradford box by Paul Bracewell this time picked out Kieron Brady, but despite appearing offside the youngster was allowed to continue - unfortunately he proceeded to waste a great chance when he rather inexplicably blazed the ball over the bar from only a few yards out.
Two more opportunities then fell our way. Firstly, ex-Newcastle defender Peter Jackson and Paul Tomlinson got themselves into a bit of a muddle, and while Colin Pascoe was unable to take advantage the ball fell to Marco Gabbiadini - but unfortunately the angle was against our young striker and Jackson was able to clear the danger. Then when Paul Bracewell played a free-kick to Kieron Brady the latter’s centre was blocked, but the ball fell to Gary Owers, whose chip towards the empty net was cleared by Brian Mitchell.
0-0 then at the break - we’d seemed to have shaded the first period as far as goalscoring chances were concerned, but could we now make amends for those missed opportunities?
Well, we certainly started the second-half brightly and were rewarded with a super goal after forty-nine minutes. Kieron Brady - who’d netted a rather stunning strike v West Ham the previous week - now repeated the feat. He went on a jinking run which left two Bradford defenders in his wake, and then proceeded to draw Paul Tomlinson from his line before slotting the ball home to send myself and the rest of the Sunderland contingent behind the goal wild with delight.
Boosted by this rather deserved breakthrough, we continued to press, and a promising move ended with Gary Owers crossing to find Marco Gabbiadini, whose spectacular header was just a shade too high.
Bradford - with a lot to play for themselves - were by no means out of it and they proceeded to subject us to a fair degree of pressure as they sought a route back into the game. However normal service was soon resumed, and in a sweet, flowing move, Colin Pascoe combined well with Kieron Brady to bring in the overlapping Paul Hardyman, who crossed low to find Marco Gabbiadini - but he was unable to take advantage of the chance.
Brady, Pascoe and Gabbiadini then caused further problems for the Bradford defence, and then eighteen minutes from time we had a second goal chalked off in rather comical circumstances. Marco Gabbiadini won the ball inside his own half and then surged forward, beating one man, only for Kieron Brady to take the ball off his toes. Brady then went on a lengthy run and drew Paul Tomlinson before slotting the ball home, only to have his effort disallowed for offside. A pity, for had Marco gone on himself and managed to score then no offence would have been committed, and we’d have been 2-0 up.
Fortunately this didn’t prove to be detrimental - these three vital points moved us up two places to seventh in the Second Division, just one place off the play-off zone.
The victory also put us in fine fettle for our next game, another vital six-pointer this time at second-placed Sheffield United three days hence. Again we came up trumps, this time when we turned a 0-1 half-time deficit into a vital 3-1 win, to thus move into fifth place.
In fact, it was our strong away form (which was in contrast somewhat to that in the remaining games at Roker, which produced just one victory against doomed Stoke) during the remainder of the 1989-90 campaign which would ultimately see us qualify us for the play-offs.
Despite losing at another relegation-threatened club, Barnsley, just ten days after the splendid win at Bramall Lane, we then proceeded to take maximum points from trips to Oxford, Wolves & Port Vale - the latter success finally assuring us of a top-six finish.
We did of course end up meeting “The Old Foe” from Tyneside in a two-legged affair, and after a 0-0 stalemate in the 1st leg at Roker we then continued our strong end-of-season away form by winning 2-0 on a truly memorable night at Sid James in the 2nd leg to set up a Wembley date v Swindon for a place in the First Division. Thus as far as form on our opponents grounds went in 1989-90, it was certainly a case of “saving the best till last!”