August 1987 saw Sunderland enter previously uncharted territory in the shape of England’s third tier. There was no doubt that relegation from the Second Division the previous May had come as a great shock to all connected with our once-proud club, but a generally positive start to Third Division life offered hope that we’d not be hanging around in that particular section for too long.
We’d began with a narrow 1-0 win at Brentford before overcoming local rivals Middlesbrough by the same scoreline in the first round of the Littlewoods Cup at Roker Park the following mid-week. Bristol Rovers then stole a point from a 1-1 draw at Roker, before Middlesbrough ended our League Cup hopes for another season with a 2-0 (2-1 on aggregate) win in the 2nd leg of our 1st round Littlewoods Cup tie.
But we then returned to winning ways with a 2-0 win v Doncaster Rovers on what was our first-ever league visit to Belle Vue, a result which saw us up to third in the Third Division table, and set us up nicely for the visit of Freight Rover Trophy holders Mansfield Town to Roker on bank holiday Monday.
The Stags had experienced a contrasting start to their league programme having won one and lost one of their first two league games. However, they’d also recorded a 3-2 aggregate Littlewood’s Cup first round victory against Second Division Birmingham, which perhaps indicated that they would provide tricky opposition as we sought our first home league win of 1987-88.
Denis Smith made just one change to the side which had triumphed at Doncaster when Paul Atkinson replaced Gary Owers, who’d failed to recover from a twisted ankle.
The visitors nearly grabbed a fourth-minute lead when a pin-point cross from Kevin Kent found Ian Stringfellow in a great position. But rather inexplicably he put his close-range header across the face of goal, though as it happened he would later make amends for this bad miss.
But we soon responded with an attack of our own, and a powerful low drive from John Kay brought a fine save from keeper Kevin Hitchcock. We kept up the pressure, and a header from Eric Gates was just off-target, then Keith Bertschin shot rather weakly at Hitchcock from a good position.
It seemed to be more or less one-way traffic at this stage, though we seemed to lack a killer touch in front of goal, and as such this perhaps not too surprisingly brought murmurs of discontent from some sections of the home crowd.
Our supporter’s frustration no doubt intensified when Mansfield grabbed a rather shock lead just before the break, particularly in view of the manner in which the visitors scored. A mix-up between new signing John McPhail and on-loan keeper Steve Hardwick presented a simple chance for Ian Stringfellow, who gleefully atoned for his earlier miss.
So 0-1 then at half-time, could we respond positively in the second period?
The answer was a very definite yes.
Denis Smith’s half-time talk no doubt had a positive effect as we came out determined to overcome the deficit. Both Gary Bennett and Paul Lemon were guilty of bad misses after some good work from Eric Gates had set up great chances, though thankfully the equaliser was not too far away when our persistence finally brought it’s due reward in the sixty-third minute.
A fine run and cross from Paul Atkinson set up a chance for Paul Lemon, and while the latter’s powerful header was superbly parried away by Hitchcock, the keeper was powerless to prevent Gordon Armstrong from ramming home his first goal of the season.
All-square then, and this equalising goal sparked off wild celebrations from the crowd. Just two minutes later the home support had another goal to celebrate, although there was an element of controversy involved. Keith Bertschin was adjudged, maybe somewhat harshly maybe, to have been sandwiched between defenders Mike Graham and Mark Kearney, but the referee still pointed to the spot.
Our new penalty taker John McPhail duly obliged with the spot-kick to make it 2-1.
We were simply unstoppable now, and the visitors began to crumble in the wake of our more or less constant pressure. But while we passed up one or two more good chances, we killed the game with two goals in a six-minute spell near the end.
Firstly, in the eighty-first minute, Paul Atkinson made it 3-1 after he was put through on goal by a superb ball by Gary Bennett, then just six minutes later we were celebrating a fourth, albeit from the penalty spot. This time, Simon Coleman handled when challenging Keith Bertschin for a Gordon Armstrong centre, and John McPhail again did the duty with the resulting penalty when he again left Kevin Hitchcock with no chance.
And it was nearly 5-1 just a minute later, but Paul Atkinson saw his close-range drive cleared from the line by defender George Foster.
4-1 then at full-time, a scoreline which hardly flattered us - it had certainly been a fine evening’s entertainment for the crowd of just under 14,000.
The win also put us top of the pile, a position that we’d retain for the rest of the season - save for one or two “wobbly patches” during September and March - and also set us up nicely for a top-of-the-table clash at another of the promotion favourites Walsall the following Saturday.
Later in the season we’d complete the double over Mansfield when we won 4-0 in a re-arranged game at Field Mill, a result which just about guaranteed our immediate return to the Second Division. Happy days indeed.