Life as a Sunderland fan has never been dull, particularly in the club’s modern day history - what with numerous comings and goings on the managerial/player front, a number of memorable (if occasionally disappointing) matches, and also the club having changed League’s/Division’s at a fairly regular rate.
And with the latter in mind there have been numerous occasions when our fate has “gone to the wire” as it were, when a promotion or relegation issue has hinged on our final game of the season - a case point being the final day of season 1990-91.
For after our welcome (if rather fortuitous) promotion the previous summer, the 1990-91 campaign had predictably proved to be difficult in spite of the side having played some good football/given some of the top side’s a run for their money.
But an inability to hold onto a potential winning lead in several games contributed in no small way to a battle for survival, which culminated in yet another final day “survival mission”.
This time it was a straight fight between ourselves and perennial relegation battlers Luton to avoid joining Derby in the Second Division. For, come the season’s final day, both ourselves and The Hatters were locked on the same number of points and with identical goal differences, though the men from Kenilworth Road had the advantages of having scored more goals, also a final home game with the already-doomed Derby.
So our task was straightforward - win at Maine Road and hope that Luton either drew or lost. A draw would suffice providing Luton lost, but that was maybe cutting things fine/asking for a bit too much, so really a win was the order of the day.
But in another twist to the plot, Manchester City - at the time managed by future Sunderland boss Peter Reid - also had an incentive to win, for a City victory would ensure they finished above their fierce local rivals United for the first time since 1978. The scene was therefore set for a tense and dramatic afternoon at both Maine Road and Kenilworth Road.
So, come Saturday 11th May, an exodus of fans from Wearside (including myself) headed for the North West, and its my guess that Manchester did not quite know what hit it once the convoy of coaches and cars arrived in the city for Sunderland’s “day of destiny”.
The atmosphere at Maine Road was electric, and in fact such was the level of noise generated by the Sunderland contingent that one may have thought the game was being staged at Roker and that Sunderland, instead of fighting for survival, were striving for promotion!
We started the game brightly, and nearly grabbed an early lead, but Marco Gabbiadini saw his powerful header blocked by a City defender.
But shortly afterwards, disaster struck when City went ahead courtesy of future Wearside legend Niall Quinn, who beat Tony Norman following a free-kick after Marco had been caught offside.
But the lads battled back bravely and turned the game on it’s head with two goals within four minutes, the first of which was easily the goal of the game, a bullet-like header from Marco following a cross from John Kay. And the celebrations of the travelling hoardes had barely died down when Gary Bennett headed home with the aid of a deflection, following a corner.
Sadly, the lead and indeed joy was short-lived when makeshift full-back Gary Owers miskicked inside his own penalty area and “Big Quinny” beat Norman from close range.
Who said that Sunderland do things the easy way?
2-2 then at the break, and during the first-half news filtered through that Sunderland-born Mick Harford had scored, and naturally it was assumed that he’d helped out his hometown club by putting Derby ahead.
However, this turned out to be false optimism of a sort, for it transpired that Harford had actually netted an own-goal in Luton’s favour and when we later learned that Luton had gone 2-0 up it was obvious that a dramatic turn of events needed to materialize if we were going to survive.
Could the lads pull it off?
Unfortunately not, and the issue was made academic in the last minute when David White beat Norman with a close-range header to make it 3-2. All rather sad and cruel, but at the same time somewhat inevitable.
Thus we rather sadly returned immediately to the backwaters of the Second Division, and I and no doubt quite a few others wondered what may have been had the club invested in some genuine quality.
For while the football we played at times was second-to-none, ultimately its points accumulated which count, and sadly we had been found wanting. “The League table doesn’t lie”, as they say.
Still, the loyalty of our fans cannot be questioned, as was exemplified when quite a large number of those present at Maine Road remained in the ground long after the final whistle, defiant even in the face of yet another setback for their club, making it a somewhat bitter-sweet occasion.
As far as I’m aware the contingent of Sunderland fans was estimated at around 15,000, which also helped give City their best home gate of the season, over 39,000, which even surpassed the attendance for their “derby” clash with fierce local rivals United earlier in the season. How many other clubs could boast such a statistic at an away game, particularly if their fans had had to stomach the sort of disappointment we at Sunderland have experienced over the years?
Interesting also that Luton - whose home average in season 1990-91 was just over 10,000, and whose gate for their game v Derby was less than the travelling contingent present at Maine Road, ie just under 13,000 - should have survived at our expense.
It does make one tend to wonder.
As for myself, I left Maine Road partly despondent at how my local club had seemingly squandered another chance for possible progression, but at the same time, partly hopeful that someday, somehow, we’d be back.
And while thats proved to be the case, and we did bounce back (on more than one occasion it has to be said), the fact that generally speaking the lessons of season 1990-91 seem to have been unheeded/that we’ve taken on the tag of a yo-yo club in modern times would tend to indicate that the formula for long-term growth, and dare say I say success, has remained as elusive as ever.
So lets just hope that this season marks the end of this particular trend, and that promotion (fingers-crossed) in May is just the beginning of a recovery of the long-time sleeping giant that is Sunderland AFC.