After successfully consolidating our place back in the Second Division in 1988-89, season 1989-90 saw Sunderland further progress in the shape of a push for what most Black Cats fans believe is their rightful place, amongst “the elite” of the English game.
And a bit of spice was added to our own promotion bid due to the fact that our dear rivals from Tyneside were also amongst the front-runners as they sought an immediate return to the First Division following their demotion at the end of the previous season.
However, our own league form in the 1989-90 campaign was at times a shade inconsistent, and while we occupied second spot once or twice we eventually had to settle for a place in the play-offs. But even this was not actually assured until the penultimate game of the season after a 2-1 win at Port Vale, though there then came a “twist to the tale” of sorts on the final day of the season.
For while we suffered a 2-3 home reverse against the Second Division’s “team of the season” Oldham, Newcastle lost 1-4 in their crucial Tees-Tyne clash at Middlesbrough (who were thus saved from a second successive relegation), and thus missed out on the chance of automatic promotion. This then meant that we’d meet “the old foe” in possibly the two most crucial derby clashes in the entire history of the fixture.
The first leg at Roker had not surprisingly proved to be a competitive affair in which Sunderland had had the better chances, though given the tension of the occasion and what was at stake, perhaps it was no surprise that the game ended 0-0. We’d had a great chance to take a vital lead into the second leg at Sid James after being awarded a penalty near the end, when United’s Mark Stimson was adjudged to have fouled Marco Gabbiadini inside the area.
But Paul Hardyman, who’d usually been so reliable from the spot for us, passed up the chance to give us what could well have proved to be priceless advantage when his penalty kick was saved by John Burridge, even though the keeper appeared to move before the penalty was taken. Frustrations then seemed to boil over when Hardyman followed through on Burridge, leaving the referee with no option but to red-card the Sunderland man.
So then onto the second leg at Sid James, where the scene was set for a gripping encounter between the team with the best home league record in 89-90 (17 wins) and that with the joint best away league record (10 wins). And with home advantage Newcastle must have been rather confident of completing the job and thus booking a Wembley date twelve days hence. But Sunderland, and in particular the “G force” of Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates, had other ideas.
And in a cracking atmosphere the Mags began brightly, providing us with a scare after just four minutes when a neat move between Kevin Brock and Bjorn Kristensen set up the chance for Mark McGhee, whose effort struck the woodwork, although Tony Norman appeared to have the shot covered.
But we gradually came into the game and were rewarded after just thirteen minutes when we forced the vital breakthrough. A throw-in from John Kay was flicked on by Marco Gabbiadini to Gary Owers, and the Newcastle-born youngster surged to the byline before crossing to find Eric Gates, who beat John Burridge from close range. Delirium.
Owers himself then may have added to the lead just short of the half-hour mark but his effort was saved Burridge, and while the rebound fell kindly for Gates, the ex-Ipswich man was caught by surprise and was unable to force home the rebound.
Newcastle were by no means out of it, proof of which came when McGhee and Aitken both had strong efforts charged down, while the former also shot weakly at Tony Norman from a good position. John Kay then got himself booked for a clumsy challenge on Billy Askew, though there appeared to be no indication that tensions would reach the same scale that they did in the first leg when Paul Hardyman saw red.
So 1-0 to us at the break, job half-done, and a date at Wembley was just another forty-five or so minutes away. Could we go on to complete the job?
Well boosted by our slender lead we continued to push forward after the break with Gabbiadini, Gates and Owers in particular causing the most problems for the hosts. In fact, Newcastle’s only real threat seemed to come from set-pieces, but with both John McPhail and Gary Bennett “rock-like” at the back for us these tended to just fizzle out. Indeed, it was the lads in the blue and white kit who carried the more attacking intent/threat, which was emphasised when a cross from Gabbiadini was only pushed out by Burridge as far as Owers, and it took a timely intervention from Mark Stimson to prevent a certain goal.
But we weren’t to be denied, and five minutes from time we put the issue beyond doubt.
Substitute Warren Hawke combined well with both Gates and Gabbiadini to set up the chance for our “goal machine” to go on and beat Burridge with a well-placed shot, and spark scenes of wild celebration amongst the travelling hoardes who were congregated behind the Newcastle goal.
Unfortunately, this second and “killer” goal also provoked a pitch invasion when several hundred home fans, no doubt angry and frustrated at seeing their own Wembley dreams on the verge of being shattered, took to the pitch, perhaps in the somewhat futile hope of having the game abandoned. But thankfully common sense prevailed, and while there was a hold-up in play while police proceeded to clear the pitch, the game eventually resumed and we saw out the last few minutes comfortably to record a truly memorable victory.
Sadly, however, we failed to do ourselves justice in the Second Division play-off final at Wembley, when Swindon beat us more emphatically than the 1-0 scoreline in their favour suggested. But then fate was to take a hand, and following Swindon’s subsequent demotion due to financial irregularities we returned to the First Division, though in all truth it was down mainly to a memorable night at Sid James and as such Wednesday, 16th May 1990 will be surely be forever etched in the memories of all those associated with Sunderland AFC.