After the double disappointment of a Milk Cup Final defeat and relegation in 1984-85, the appointment of Lawrie McMenemy in the summer of 1985 in place of the sacked Len Ashurst seemed a masterstroke.
After all, McMenemy had previously achieved a fair degree of success with unfashionable Southampton, including an FA Cup triumph against much-fancied Manchester United just three years after our own memorable Wembley victory over the mighty Leeds.
So, could he be the man to succeed where quite a few of his predecessors at Roker had failed, and guide Sunderland to some long-overdue success?
Sadly not, for McMenemy’s initial season in charge, 1985-86, turned into such a horror show that we faced the real prospect of a first-ever spell in Division Three - a fate only avoided courtesy of two late season home wins.
Would the warning signs be heeded? Again, sadly not, for as it turned out, season 1985-86 would appear party-like, compared to what happened in 1986-87. For after an encouraging start, which saw us attain fifth place in Division Two at the end of October, the season then gradually deteriorated, and despite the club appointing the mercurial Bob Stokoe after McMenemy’s rather inevitable departure in April.
Achieving Second Division survival proved a task beyond even “The Messiah”, with the damage already done proving to be irreparable. And the heart-breaking play-off defeat by Gillingham meant that the somewhat unthinkable had become reality, with Sunderland AFC now a third-tier club for the first time in it’s long and proud history.
It is claimed that when McMenemy (or “Mackemenemy” as he became known) first arrived, he’d apparently pledged to take the club out of the Second Division - unfortunately, however, perhaps he’d forgotten to say in which direction.
But onto 1987-88 and our subsequent revival. Denis Smith was given the job of trying to resurrect the fallen giant that was SAFC, and when we went top of the Division Three at the end of August, it looked we were onto a winner with our latest managerial appointment.
Then after a slightly rocky patch in September, Smith’s acquisition of striker Marco Gabbiadini from his former club York proved to be another inspirational move, for Marco and Eric Gates would form a rather lethal partnership, known as “G force”, which would not only help us escape the Division Three, but also prove instrumental in our eventual return to “the elite”, just two years hence.
Meantime in 1987-88, a strong run of form up until Christmas had us marked as favourites for automatic promotion. Two more tricky spells followed in February and March, which included rather embarrassing defeats at Aldershot (this was our first-ever visit to the Recreation Ground, while Aldershot were one of eight clubs we encountered for the first time at League in 1987-88, the others being Chester City, Chesterfield, Doncaster, Gillingham, Port Vale, Southend and Wigan), and Bristol Rovers 2-3 and 0-4 respectively.
But by Easter we were looking certs for an instant return to Division two. A 4-0 win at Mansfield made promotion that bit more likely, and then a 1-0 success in the next game, rather aptly in Denis Smith’s native Potteries against Port Vale on the last day of April, made Division Two football in 1988-89 a certainty, the Division Three Championship 99.9% certain.
As it happened, we were crowned champions without even kicking a ball, for on May bank holiday Monday afternoon, Walsall, who like ourselves had been battling for automatic promotion, lost 0-3 at Bristol Rovers to put the matter beyond dispute.
Cue then the party/celebrations at our own home game, the last of the season, that evening versus Northampton. And in view of the large crowed which was now expected for the promotion/championship party, I made a point of arriving at Roker Park earlier than normal in order to get a decent vantage point in the ground.
Thus, I got to the ground around 5.30 PM for a 7.30 PM kick-off, and was greeted by a rather amazing sight - several lengthy crowds at nearly every turnstile, and this TWO HOURS before the game was due to start, a sight perhaps not witnessed since “cup fever” in season 1972-73!
In fact the attendance at the game, 29,454, was not only by far the biggest in the Third Division in 1987-88, but it also surpassed the best home gates of North East neighbours Newcastle & Middlesbrough, who were in Division’s one and two respectively. Not a bad feat at all, one which tends to demonstrate the passion of our rather loyal fanbase - even if it’s patience has been pushed to its limits at times!
Before the kick-off, one half of the “G force”, Eric Gates, who’d scored the vital goal at Vale Park, was rather fittingly crowned “player of the year” for his efforts throughout the season, and he’d have a further significant hand in proceedings on the pitch, when he notched the third and decisive goal.
Prior to that, we’d gone ahead in the first-half when Gates again had been involved after being tripped in the box, John McPhail converting the resulting spot-kick.
However, Northampton were not at Roker to join in the party, for they still had a chance of making the play-offs, and as such were going flat-out for the win. They hauled themselves level when Tony Adcock beat Iain Hesford with a spectacular chip - a goal which brought applause even from some of the home support.
The Cobblers could have gone in at the break in front, for they caused one or two other anxious moments for our defence - a case in point being when Gary Bennett had to clear a goal bound effort from David Longhurst from just short of the goal-line.
Sunderland however, were not to be outdone and have their occasion spoiled; shortly after the interval, Gordon Armstrong converted a cross from Marco Gabbiadini to restore his side’s lead, then Paul Lemon had an effort saved by keeper Peter Gleasure, only for the rebound to fall kindly for Eric Gates to head home.
John McPhail then missed from the spot, blazing his kick high into the Fulwell End after Colin Pascoe had been fouled inside the area. But, all things considered, perhaps he could be excused, having been generally reliable from the spot during the season.
So Sunderland concluded their home programme in style, and in spite of several pitch invaders, the team proceeded to do a lap of honour in front of their appreciative fans, who were no doubt also relieved to have escaped Division Three at the first attempt.
The team had done so rather emphatically, what with twenty-seven wins and ninety-two goals achieved in the league - the “Mackemenemy” era largely forgotten.
The Division Three campaign of 1987-88 while unwanted, had also proved to be memorable, spiced up maybe by the aforementioned first-ever League meetings, while I estimated that, as part of our “conquest” of the third tier, we provided roughly half-a-dozen clubs with their best home League gates. Such is the attraction of Sunderland AFC, whether they be in the Premier League, Championship, League One, or wherever.
Sadly, history of sorts has repeated itself, courtesy of one or two ill-fated managerial regimes in the last few years. However, fortunately with us having recovered under the leadership of Jack Ross, the signs look encouraging at present.
So, let’s hope that come May 2019, we once more exit the backwaters of England’s third tier at the first attempt, this time NEVER to return again.