Following the heartbreak of yet another relegation at the end of the 1990-91 campaign we’d been labelled as promotion favourites in what was by and large a rather average Second Division.
The first half of the 1991-92 season had proved to be a rather disappointing time, for after a reasonably promising start our form became rather erratic to say the least, and as such we found ourselves stuck in the lower regions of the Second Division table. And things reached a rather sorry end, at least as far as our manager was concerned, for following a rather embarrassing 0-3 reverse at bottom club Oxford just after Christmas 1991 the club’s board decided that enough was enough, and Denis Smith was handed his P45.
So up then stepped assistant manager Malcolm Crosby, for his first real taste of life as a manager, albeit on a caretaker basis, and what an initial transformation he effected.
We got the new year off to a fine start by beating Barnsley 2-0 at Roker Park, then three days later we progressed to the FA Cup fourth round for the first time in six years by beating Port Vale 3-0, also on home turf. So two wins out of two, five goals for, not one against - it seemed that our temporary gaffer had waved a magic wand of sorts.
On Saturday, 11th January we faced a third successive home game, this time against a Millwall side who lay three places above us in the Second Division table but who’d inflicted upon us our heaviest defeat of the season so far by 1-4 at The Den back in August. The Lions then were clearly not going to be pushovers, and their line-up at Roker featured some familiar names - Mick McCarthy, who would later have a spell as Sunderland manager but on this occasion would feature in central defence, full-back Kenny Cunningham, who would have a rather brief spell on Wearside in 2006-07, and midfielder Alex Rae, later of course to become a firm favourite in the red and white stripes.
Could Malcolm Crosby then inspire a third successive win? The answer would be yes, and in a manner not even perhaps the most optimistic of us could possibly have imagined!
Millwall then, having lost the toss, kicked off attacking the Roker End.
It was Sunderland who nearly grabbed a fourth-minute lead, but not before Mick McCarthy was booked for a foul on John Byrne. Brian Atkinson lead a charge out of defence and picked out Gary Owers, who in turned found the overlapping John Kay. The latter then tried to find John Byrne at the far post, but Byrne was beaten by Kenny Cunningham - though the full-back miscued his header and it appeared goal-bound until Sedgefield-born keeper Aidan Davison pulled off a great save to spare his team-mate’s blushes.
Play was fairly even thereafter, though without ourselves or the visitors fashioning a really clear-cut opening, but then on the quarter-hour mark we forced the breakthrough, courtesy of a quite spectacular effort. A centre from Don Goodman was bound for Brian Atkinson, until Ian Dawes intercepted at the expense of a corner.
Paul Hardyman’s kick was only partly cleared by the Millwall defence, and when John Byrne returned the ball to the full-back he let fly with a curling left-foot effort which flashed past the unsighted Davison into the net, much to the delight of he home support.
Boosted by this great effort we continued to press, with Byrne and Goodman in particular causing plenty of problems for the visiting defence. Aidan Davison needed two attempts to claim a Brian Atkinson corner, then Atkinson and John Byrne combined well to set up a great chance for Gordon Armstrong, but the Tynesider wasted the chance by heading straight at the rather grateful Davison.
Just after the half-hour mark, and against the run of play, Millwall drew level.
The move was started by Paul Stephenson, who brought in ex-Boro man Paul Kerr, and while the latter came under immediate pressure from both Anton Rogan and Gary Bennett he still managed to turn and fire in a low cross which was turned past Tony Norman from close range by none other than Alex Rae.
This equalizer seemed to spark fresh life into the London side and they were to cause us one or two problems as the half progressed. Indeed, we were lucky not to fall behind six minutes before the break when a mix-up between Anton Rogan and Tony Norman let in John McGinlay, but with the goal at his mercy he rather inexplicably rattled the crossbar with his fierce effort, and Rogan then redeemed himself by clearing the rebound to safety.
A rather entertaining first-half ended all-square at 1-1, and I don’t think anyone could have imagined what was to come in the second period.
Don Goodman missed a great chance early in the half when he shot tamely at Aidan Davison after being set up by a great pass by Anton Rogan. However, our recent signing would soon make amends when he helped us take a decisive grip on the game, courtesy of a rather incredible spell when we notched three goals in as many minutes.
The goal which triggered it off came in the fifty-fifth minute when a superb ball from Brian Atkinson picked out John Byrne, who went on to coolly slot the ball home and restore our lead. Then just two minutes later, it was 3-1, when long kick from Tony Norman was only half-cleared by the Millwall defence and John Kay gained possession and played the ball to Peter Davenport, on as a half-time substitute for Gary Owers. Davenport then brought in Don Goodman, who went on to leave Davison helpless.
And the cheers of the home crowd had barely died down when just sixty seconds later we made it 4-1, when Goodman headed home his second of the game following a cross from Gordon Armstrong.
Game over then so it appeared, even at such an early stage of the second-half.
Millwall to their credit fought back strongly, even though they’d no doubt been left reeling by this three-goal burst. John McGinlay tested Tony Norman with a fierce effort which thudded into the keepers chest. But we were soon back on the offensive, and Aidan Davison did well to deal with a cross from Paul Hardyman when he came under challenge from both Don Goodman and John Byrne. Then, the Millwall keeper saved well from both Armstrong and Goodman, as the latter strove for his hat-trick.
After seventy-two minutes we made it 5-1 courtesy of Don Goodman’s hat-trick. Peter Davenport and John Kay combined well, and when the latter’s centre found Goodman the ex-WBA man left Davison helpless. Great stuff indeed!
Millwall then tried to respond and were rewarded with a second goal nine minutes from time, though it was really a gift on our part. A rather sloppy back-pass from Gordon Armstrong was intercepted by Mark Falco, who then crossed to find Paul Kerr, who easily converted at the far post.
Just five minutes later we restored our four-goal advantage, when Gordon Armstrong set up Peter Davenport to score with a great left-foot shot. Pure delight!
And 6-2 was how it ended. It had been a great afternoon’s entertainment for the crowd of 16,533, while it was also our third win in a row under Malcolm Crosby’s leadership, our sixth victory in succession overall at Roker, and also the first time we’d scored six in a home league game since we’d overwhelmed Southend in Division Three just over four years previous.
The following week we made it four wins a row with a 2-1 victory at Derby, though this was as good as it really got for us in 1991-92, in the Second Division at least, for thereafter our league form tended to disintegrate somewhat, no doubt effected by our FA Cup run, which would eventually lead us to Wembley - by which time Malcolm Crosby had been given the manager’s job on a permanent basis.
We did of course survive with a bit to spare in the Second Division but then lost to Liverpool in spite of a spirited showing at Wembley. However, in a matter of months, Crosby would go from hero to zero and find himself out of a job, the result of poor form in 1992-93 which saw us again battling for survival.
Football, like life itself, can sometimes be cruel.