After enjoying a 100% record in January of 1988, February had by contrast been a bit of a barren time for Sunderland AFC as their Third Division promotion challenge wobbled slightly.
The month had opened with a home draw with fellow promotion hopefuls Walsall and we again shared the points the following week, this time at Preston.
Normal service then seemed to be resumed with a win against Brentford at Roker Park, before we suffered rather embarrassing back-to-back away defeats at Bristol Rovers and Aldershot on what was our first-ever visit to the Recreation Ground.
And if this wasn’t enough, we’d also suffered a rather inglorious exit from the Sherpa Van Trophy at the hands of local rivals Hartlepool on a freezing-cold night at Roker Park, courtesy of a rather bizarre wind-assisted goal.
However, it was our turn to provide a touch of the bizarre when Fulham visited Roker Park on the first day of March 1988.
I seem to recall that it was another bitterly cold night, and following a recent snowfall the pitch resembled a skating rink in places, though in spite of this the game still got the go-ahead.
The weather and indeed our recent form possibly contributed to what was our lowest league gate of the season to date - just over 11,000 - which included a few brave and hardy souls who’d made the long journey from London.
We’d been deposed of the leadership of Division Three following our defeat at Aldershot, so the visit of Fulham seemed like an ideal chance to return to winning ways as The Cottagers had not won on their travels in the league since November and had suffered a 1-5 beating at Notts County a few weeks prior to their visit to Roker.
But while the London side occupied a place just above mid-table, they still no doubt had a place in the play-offs in mind - maybe they wouldn’t necessarily prove to be pushovers, particularly as they had in their side ex-Rokerman Clive Walker, who was now approaching the veteran stage of his career but who would no doubt be keen to do well against his former club.
As it happened Walker failed to make any real impression and was roundly booed whenever he touched the ball, while the battle of the strikers between our own starlet Marco Gabbiadini and Fulham’s highly-rated Leroy Rosenior turned out to be no contest, with Marco upstaging his counterpart (including by netting what proved to be the second and killer goal just before the break).
But before that another of our youngsters, Gordon Armstrong, had set us on the way to victory, but not before he provided a scare with a badly directed back-pass which almost let in Gordon Davies, and it took an alert and brave piece of goalkeeping from Iain Hesford to foil the Fulham striker.
But then came Armstrong’s opener after nineteen minutes, and it had a touch of controversy about it. For a right-wing corner from the Tyneside-born midfielder, helped by the windy conditions, sailed right over the head of Fulham keeper Jim Stannard and although Peter Scott hooked the ball clear, the referee awarded a goal having consulted with his linesman who confirmed the ball had crossed the line.
Boosted by this welcome if rather fortuitous breakthrough, we continued to press forward and Eric Gates missed a great chance to extend our advantage; he blasted wide after an effort from Paul Lemon had been blocked.
Rosenior then fluffed a half-chance for the visitors, but it was Sunderland who continued to call the tune and after Gabbiadini had twice gone close, our young ‘goal machine’ then made amends three minutes before the interval with one his best-ever goals when he latched onto a slide-rule pass from John Kay, firing an unstoppable drive into the roof of the net to give us a 2-0 half-time advantage which in no way flattered us.
Perhaps not surprisingly the tempo in the second period slackened off slightly, though there was a bit of a flare-up just after the hour mark when Rosenior was booked after having appeared to aim a kick at Gary Bennett.
John McPhail and Gates then almost added to our lead and we breathed a bit of a sigh of relief when Peter Scott had a goal disallowed. Then in the final minute Iain Hesford, who’d been a virtually spectator throughout, made another brave safe, this time at the feet of Justin Skinner, before John Kay cleared Gary Barnett’s follow-up effort from the line to help preserve a hard-earned clean sheet and three vital points.
So 2-0 was how it ended, and we thus completed ‘the double’ over Fulham, having won by the same scoreline at Craven Cottage back in September when Marco had of course got off the mark for us with two goals, the first two of many in our colours.
The win also took us back to the top of the Third Division, though unfortunately it proved to be our only success in March, which turned out to be more or less a carbon-copy of February. In the next two home games Blackpool and Notts County both took a point from us after controversial equalizers, Wigan did likewise at Springfield Park, while a rather surprise 1-2 defeat at Fourth Division-bound York was compounded by crowed trouble which landed us in trouble with the Football Association.
Thankfully this seemed to be merely a blip, for April and May were far more productive and we virtually steam-rolled our way to the Championship/promotion, and exited “the wilderness” of the Third Division at the first attempt. Happy days indeed.