March 1988 had not been a particularly good time for Sunderland’s Third Division promotion bid for the month had produced just one victory.
We’d been denied wins in home games against Blackpool and Notts County and at Wigan due to controversial equalisers for our respective opponents, while a loss at York had been compounded by crowd disturbances at Bootham Crescent which had landed our club in trouble with the FA.
However, in early April we returned to winning ways, with an Easter double versus Grimsby and Chesterfield which put us in fine fettle for the long journey to Essex on Saturday 9th April, and a first-ever appearance at Southend’s Roots Hall.
The previous November we’d hammered The Shrimpers 7-0 at Roker, our best win since (well I don’t quite know for certain, but certainly before my time as a fan of the club), helped mainly by a “foursome” by Eric Gates, and a brace from his striking partner and the other half of the “G force”, Marco Gabbiadini.
So doubtless many of our fans were quite confident of a repeat dose and that three more promotion/Championship points were a mere formality. However, as Southend were battling against an immediate return to the Fourth Division, they were equally as needy for a win as we were, so perhaps they might not necessarily prove to be the pushovers we’d hoped they’d be.
And we got off to the best possible start when after just five minutes Marco Gabbiadini was fouled inside the box after being played through by John McPhail. “Penalty king” McPhail himself took the resulting spot-kick, sending home keeper Paul Sansome the wrong way.
Had the floodgates then opened?
Perhaps not for the home side soon responded, and Peter Butler sent an effort just wide of Iain Hesford’s upright. But we were soon back on the offensive, and Paul Lemon went close twice, but just after the quarter-hour mark we edged further ahead when it proved to be third time lucky for The Teessider.
John Kay, Gary Owers and newcomer Colin Pascoe all combined well, and the latter’s cross picked out Marco Gabbiadini who nodded the ball back for Lemon to easily score from close-range.
We then missed a great chance to go 3-0 ahead when Gordon Armstrong headed against the woodwork after Pascoe had earlier passed up a shooting chance. But after twenty-six minutes we did grab the third goal we’d been threatening when Armstrong’s right-wing corner picked out Gabbiadini, who powered home a header. Game over it appeared.
But this seemed to stir the home side into action and our defence had one or two anxious moments as Southend tried to get back into the game. And, that is precisely what they did six minutes before the interval when following their first corner of the game, David Crown headed home to give his side a lifeline.
Southend then had appeals for a penalty turned down right on the half-time, and most of those present probably wondered what lay in store in the second-half, i.e. whether the home side would stage a revival or if we’d would go on to further stamp our authority on the game.
As it happened we had to withstand a fair bit of pressure early in the second period before Gabbiadini twice missed good chances to increase our advantage. This seemed to encourage Southend, and Gary Bennett and Iain Hesford both had to be alert in order to foil David Crown, who was proving to be the home side’s main source of danger.
However we soon regained our attacking intent, and after we’d gone close on a couple of occasions the issue was put beyond doubt three minutes from time when Colin Pascoe netted for the third successive game, this time when he headed home a cross from Paul Lemon.
So all-in-all, a sound afternoon’s work, and this third straight win maintained our three-point lead at the top of the Third Division and with games in hand over our nearest challengers, Notts County and Walsall.
This was also the first occasion we’d netted four goals in an away league game in 1987-88, and we’d repeat the feat in subsequent trips to Mansfield and Rotherham as we cruised to promotion/the Third Division championship.
But back to 2018-19, and it would be a nice to round off the season with another victory at Roots Hall on 4th May to give Sunderland the best possible chance of doing well in the first leg of the semi-finals in the play-offs.