The summer of 1990 had proved to be something of a bitter-sweet period for all connected with Sunderland AFC. For after that never-to-be-forgotten play-off semi-final 2nd led triumph at Sid James Park, hopes were high that we might make it back to the First Division.
However, the lads let themselves down badly in the final at Wembley against Swindon. Ossie Ardiles side’s 1-0 win did tend to flatter us somewhat, for had it not been for the heroics of Tony Norman Swindon’s winning margin would surely have been greater. But just we when seemed to resigned to at least one more season in the Second Division fate was to take a hand when Swindon were found guilty of financial irregularities, and as such forfeited their place in the First Division.
In spite of protests from the Mags and one or two other clubs, Sunderland regained a place amongst England’s elite after a five-year exile, even if this was via “the back door”, though its my view at least that as beaten play-off finalists we were perhaps the logical choice.
And after an unlucky opening day defeat in our First Division “comeback game” at Norwich we then gave Spurs, Gazza, Lineker et al a good run for their money the following Tuesday evening at Roker in front of a bumper gate of just over 30,000, and were perhaps unfortunate not to have took three points instead of having to settle for a 0-0 draw.
The following Saturday FA Cup holders Manchester United journeyed to Wearside, and while United were missing the inspirational Bryan Robson they still boasted players of the calibre of Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and Paul Ince, while United’s captain for the day was none other than Steve Bruce. Star-studded United then, like Spurs, would doubtless provide us with a stiff test - though it would be one that we’d pass with flying colours.
Attacking the Fulwell End in the first-half, Sunderland - by no means overawed by their illustrious opponents - would largely control the game in the first forty-five minutes, and Marco Gabbiadini would prove to be particular handful for the visitors.
This was perhaps emphasised after just four minutes when our young “goal-machine” crashed a powerful effort against the upright, and doubtless United keeper Les Sealey was grateful to be taking a goal-kick as opposed to fishing the ball out of the back of his net. A positive sign of what was to come.
United were by no means idle up front, as was proved when Brian McClair had a powerful drive deflected wide, while Mark Hughes and Paul Ince also provided one or two moments of anxiety. But it was Sunderland who continued to call the tune, and Gary Owers had a strong drive beaten away by Les Sealey. But the reward our enterprising play deserved came after twenty-three minutes, when Peter Davenport produced a fine bit of skill on the left and crossed into the middle to find Owers, who after having failed to make a clean contact first time then headed home after the ball seemed to hang into the air. Delirium!
The visitors responded immediately but Hughes was off-target, sending his shot high into the Roker End much to the relief of the home support. But Sunderland were soon back on the offensive, with Gabbiadini’s pace causing the United defence all sorts of problems, while Owers had another powerful effort saved by Sealey. And though McClair had a couple of chances just before the break, doubtless the visitors were grateful to be going in at half-time only 0-1 down such had been the pattern of play in the first-half.
1-0 is never usually enough against a side of the calibre of Manchester United, and Alex Ferguson’s (this was of course the time before he was known as Sir Alex) half-time team talk obviously had some effect, for after having played second fiddle in the first period his side would prove to be a bit of a different proposition in the second-half.
Sunderland nearly extended their lead shortly after the break when a Gabbiadini header was cleared from the goalline by Gary Pallister, while Mal Donaghy almost conceded an own-goal after a cross from Owers had caused anxiety in the United defence. But the visitors then began to show more menace up front and Tony Norman, who’d experienced rather quiet time of things so far, was forced to make fine saves from Hughes, Ince and Mike Phelan as Sunderland’s early dominance appeared to have evaporated.
Proof of which came in the seventieth minute when a centre from substitute Russell Beardsmore picked out McClair, who headed home the somewhat inevitable equalizer, much to the delight of the travelling United contingent. Game on.
Sunderland were by no means finished, though when Kevin Ball struck a post late on it appeared that we may have to settle for a second successive home draw. However, our inspirational skipper Gary Bennett had other ideas.
With time almost up, Benno cleverly chipped the ball over the head of Pallister on the edge of the United area and then fired low and hard beyond Sealey into the far corner of the net.
Cue more delirium!
This late goal appeared to knock the stuffing out of United who were unable to respond meaningfully in the little time that remained, and come the final whistle the Sunderland side received rapturous applause from most of the crowd of just over 26,000 after having deservedly achieved their first victory back in the First Division.
Unfortunately, however, this great win was one of few highspots in 1990-91, when despite us gaining many admirers for some enterprising play/giving a few top sides a run for their money, a lack of genuine quality meant we were unable to make a real go of things and once again rather sadly our experience of the top flight was all too brief.
Unfortunately, the lessons of 1990-91 seem to have been largely unheeded since, though with a new regime in place hopefully the only way now is onwards and up.