Following the euphoria (and indeed relief) of the successful 1987-88 Third Division Championship season - when we left England’s third tier behind at the first time of asking - there was not surprisingly an air of optimism on Wearside in the summer of 1988.
After the horrors of recent times, particularly under the leadership of he-who-is-best-not-named, it now seemed that our beloved club might well be on the verge of a more successful era.
As it happened we made an inauspicious start to the new campaign, and the failure to win any of our first six League games maybe had some folk fearing “1986-87 the sequel”.
But successive home victories over Oldham and Leeds in early October seemed to get the lads up and running, and while these were followed by a somewhat unlucky defeat at Walsall, and a 0-0 draw at Hull (when future SAFC keeper Tony Norman had proved to be the villain of the piece), there still appeared a fair bit of anticipation when Lou Macari’s Swindon Town visited Roker on Saturday, 22nd October.
The Robins had successfully consolidated in the Second Division in 1987-88 and were comfortably placed in mid-table prior to their visit to Wearside. However, the omens were not good for the Wiltshire side, for they’d been beaten on all of their five previous visits to Roker.
Things were not about to get much better - rather worse, in fact.
So on a glorious sunny day, Sunderland - playing towards the Roker End in the first-half - began brightly, and almost took the lead after fifteen minutes when Marco Gabbidini’s inch-perfect cross picked out new signing Billy Whitehurst, but unfortunately the ex-Newcastle man couldn’t direct his header on target.
Undeterred we kept up the pressure, and after Gordon Armstrong had gone close we forced the breakthrough on the twenty-minute mark, although there was perhaps a bit of controversy over to whom the goal should have been credited.
Gary Owers latched onto a through ball and beat two defenders before chipping keeper Fraser Digby, and while it appeared that defender Jon Gittens may have finally forced the ball home in his attempt to clear, the goal was eventually given to Owers.
The floodgates had opened.
However, there was no doubt about who notched our second goal just six minutes later. A cross from the right by Steve Doyle was headed down by Colin Pascoe into the path of our ace marksman Marco Gabbiadini, who gleefully rammed the ball home.
Gabbiadini then missed a great chance to further increase our lead shortly afterwards, while Owers, Pascoe and Whitehurst also came close as the one-way traffic towards the Swindon goal continued relentlessly.
2-0 then at the break, rather modest reward such had been our dominance in the first period, and no doubt Swindon were rather relieved not to be further in arrears - not for long however, for there was to be no let-up in Sunderland’s control in the second-half.
Shortly after the break Whitehurst squandered a great chance to increase our lead when he missed from a good position after an Owers free-kick had caused uncertainty in the Swindon defence. Whitehurst then headed another chance over the top when under pressure from Tim Parkin, before Swindon forced two corners which came to nothing.
Sunderland continued to force the pace, with Owers, who’d had a fine game so far, almost forcing further openings.
Then in the seventy-third minute came the rather inevitable third goal, and a fine effort it was too, even though we needed an element of luck.
Hesitation on the part of Parkin enabled Whitehurst to nip in and lob Digby, the ball going in off the far post. Gabbiadini and Whitehurst then had chances to add to our lead, the latter forcing a brilliant diving save from Digby, but a fourth goal eventually arrived ten minutes from time when a left-wing cross from Armstrong picked out Marco, who beat Digby with a powerful header. Great stuff!
Iain Hesford, apart for having to deal with one or two crosses, had been a virtual spectator so far, but he was called into serious action for the first time in the game near the end when he had to deal with a twenty-yard drive by Jones.
Then, substitute Henry was narrowly off target with a header. But nothing was going to take the gloss off a fine afternoon’s work, one which on another day may have seen us reach double-figures, and as such it was a pity the game was witnessed by a rather disappointing crowd of just 13,520.
But the result and performance - easily our best of the season to date in the League - perhaps stated that we weren’t back in the Second Division just make up the numbers, something we emphasised by beating Second Division leaders Blackburn Rovers by 2-0 at Roker the following Tuesday evening.
We followed that up by picking up a deserved point from a 1-1 draw at another of the promotion favourites, Manchester City, three days later. Unfortunately, we weren’t quite consistent enough over the whole season to mount a serious promotion bid and eventually had to settle for mid-table consolidation.
There was no doubt that progress was being made and, as fate would have it, the next part of our recovery mission would not be too long delayed - a matter of months in fact, and helped in no small way by a rather memorable night a few miles up the road.