After the horrors of season 1985-86 most of us hoped that things surely couldn’t get any worse, and that the only way was up. How wrong we were, for season 1986-87 would mark a new low-point in the long and proud history of Sunderland AFC courtesy of yet another relegation struggle.
The Football League had introduced changes to the normal promotion/relegation format, for in season 1986-87 a new play-off system meant that as far as the Second Division was concerned, only the bottom two clubs would be automatically relegated, while the club which finished third from bottom would contest the Second/Third Division play-offs along with the clubs finishing third, fourth and fifth in the Third Division.
So come Saturday, 9th May 1987, Brighton and Grimsby were already down, and it was a straight fight between ourselves, Birmingham, Huddersfield, Hull and Shrewsbury to avoid the dreaded play-off spot, with Birmingham and Shrewsbury actually meeting in a crunch clash at St. Andrews.
Thus the scenario was straightforward - if we could beat mid-table Barnsley in our final home League game we’d be safe no matter happened in the other matches affecting the relegation play-off issue. And the season’s best home crowd - just over 19,000 - were present at Roker, no doubt hoping along with caretaker boss Bob Stokoe to inspire a similar sort of miracle to that seen at Wembley on 5th May 1973.
The anxiety and tension of the situation seemed to visibly affect the lads, for Mark Proctor and Gary Bennett missed good chances early on to settle both the nerves of the side and fans alike, while Alan Kennedy almost put through his own goal when clearing an effort from Barnsley’s Jim Dobbin. Steve Agnew then netted for the visitors, though all us Sunderland fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the goal was disallowed after Iain Hesford was adjudged to have been fouled.
Bennett was off-target with another effort, and Keith Bertschin had a close-range effort saved by keeper Clive Baker when he really should have scored, but then we forced the vital breakthrough after twenty-eight minutes.
A fine passing move saw Kennedy receive the ball on the left wing and his cross was met by Bertschin, who atoned for his earlier miss by heading powerfully past Baker. The relief was palpable.
And the cheers of the home crowd had barely died down when we extended our lead just two minutes later. An inswinging corner picked out Bennett, whose header was cleared from the line by Paul Futcher but only as far as Frank Gray, who hit an unstoppable drive - possibly a contender for goal of the season - into the roof of the Barnsley net with Baker completely helpless.
So, at 2-0 up, SURELY we couldn’t thrown this one away?
But knowing Sunderland it was maybe a bit too much to hope for! However, we continued to press and Bertschin and Steve Hetzke both came close to extending our lead, though just before half-time Barnsley perhaps proved that they weren’t prepared to roll over and die, when they pulled a goal back as Dobbin beat Hesford with a spectacular twenty-five yard drive.
And Dobbin almost equalised early in the second-half, before Bertschin missed a good chance to make it 3-1. Then, just after the hour, came the game’s defining moment.
Barnsley substitute Simon Jeffels was adjudged, perhaps somewhat harshly, to have fouled Eric Gates inside the box, and up stepped Mark Proctor to hopefully seal the win and indeed Second Division safety.
Justice appeared to be done when Baker beat away the spot-kick, a miss which was to prove costly. Shortly afterwards Barnsley were level when John MacDonald played a neat pass through the centre to find Rodger Wylde, and the ex-Roker forward went on to slot the ball past Hesford.
And if this wasn’t bad enough the Tykes struck again almost immediately with MacDonald again the architect, though this time he set up the chance for Gwyn Thomas to go on and beat Hesford, even though the keeper got his hands to the ball. Utter disbelief and shock!
It was a bit hard to take in this sudden turn of events after we’d been in more or less total control of not just the game, but also our Second Division status, and while we tried to respond positively, our efforts to retrieve the game not only smacked of desperation but were ultimately in vain.
It could have been a lot worse when MacDonald missed a great chance to put the issue beyond doubt near the end. Thus our only hope now was that other results had gone in our favour (not for the first time), but sadly it was not to be. So the play-offs (and ultimately the Third Division) now beckoned.
In all truth we had no-one to blame but ourselves, for the Barnsley home game was one of about a dozen or so acts of charity during the course of the 1986-87 campaign when we’d squandered potential winning leads. Had we been triumphant in possibly even just half of these games, we may well have been participating in the Second Division promotion play-offs as opposed to fighting for survival, and sadly our charitable nature is a trend which has continued to this very day.
Still, the league table doesn’t lie, and it was onto the two-legged play-off semi-final against Gillingham which did offer us a lifeline, whereas under the old system we’d have already been down and out.
However the Gills (and Tony Cascarino in particular) had other ideas, and perhaps the less said about this particular game and indeed seasons 1985-86 & 1986-87 in general the better really. Having “surpassed” our efforts (if one can indeed call them that) of season 1986-87 over thirty years on in 2017-18, we can only hope and pray, “never again”.