December 1987 had began rather ingloriously for Sunderland.
Our third-tier status meant participation in the first round of the FA Cup in 1987-88 and, sadly, our interest in England’s premier cup competition ended before it had even began as we suffered a rather embarrassing 1-2 defeat at Scunthorpe, then of (old) Division Four.
This meant that we’d exited both major knock-out competitions at the first hurdle (Middlesbrough had beaten us in the first round of the League Cup back in August), though there was still the consolation (if one can indeed call it that) of further progress in the Sherpa Van Trophy (participation in which being another consequence of our demotion at the end of the previous season).
But the defeat at Scunthorpe had proved to be a “kick up the backside” of sorts, for we then proceeded to win our next three games. First up was a 2-0 win at fellow promotion hopefuls Northampton, followed by a pre-Christmas treat for our fans in the shape of a 3-0 home v Rotherham (in which Eric Gates helped himself to a hat-trick), then a 2-1 win at Chester on Boxing Day - all of these wins reinforcing our position as Third Division leaders.
So it was a bit of a surprise then when lowly Preston took a point from a 1-1 draw at Roker in the next game, though our own below-par performance in no small way contributed to the loss of two points.
But we had the perfect chance to make amends shortly afterwards, when another of the strugglers, Doncaster, made their first-ever League appearance at Roker on New Year’s Day 1988. We’d already beaten The Rovers 2-0 at their Belle Vue Ground back in August, and in view of our opponent’s lowly league placing we were quite confident of completing our first “double” of 1987-88, as well as getting 1988 off to a winning start.
Maybe we were slightly suffering from a New Year’s “hangover” of sorts while our opponents had possibly not read the script, for they proceeded to stun most of Roker’s best league gate to date in 87-88, 19,474, by taking the lead after just three minutes of play when Steve Burke curled a free-kick from twenty yards past Iain Hesford.
Thankfully, this merely served to delay the inevitable, and by the half-hour mark we were comfortably in control. Our equalizer came just five minutes after Rovers had taken their shock lead, when Marco Gabbiadini converted a corner from Paul Atkinson.
We then missed at least three good chances to go in front before the inevitable second goal arrived, and this time Marco turned provider, setting up the chance for Paul Lemon to put us ahead after nineteen minutes.
Then just eleven minutes later it was 3-1 and seemingly game over, though there was an element of luck involved. A centre from John Kay picked out Lemon, and his mis-hit shot took a wicked deflection off Rovers scorer Burke and completely wrong-footed keeper Andy Rhodes, who along with his team-mates must now have feared the worst.
Indeed, it now seemed just a matter of how many we’d win by as we poured forward at will, with poor Rovers simply not in the game.
However, Atkinson, Gabbiadini, Gates, Kay and Lemon all passed up chances to make the scoreline truly reflect our dominance, while Rhodes pulled off one or two fine saves, one in particular to deny Paul Lemon his hat-trick shortly after the break.
So while 10-1 may have been a more accurate reflection of the game result-wise, we had in the end to settle for 3-1, though the win did mark the start of a 100% record in January 1988.
But, back to the present day - ourselves and Rovers have been reunited at third-tier level and both clubs have a similar aim in mind, i.e. to reach The Championship.
Thus, the game on Good Friday takes on the mantle of six-pointer, and with us having already beaten Rovers at their place back in October a repeat of the home win from 1988 would do quite nicely.