1st of May, 1993: the date of our final home league engagement of what had been a rather tumultuous 1992-93 campaign. So much so, that as we neared the conclusion of the season we faced a rather familiar scenario, i.e. a battle for survival, when on this occasion we were fighting to avoid a drop into England’s third tier, or the Second Division as it was known at the time.
A week previous, a rather insipid performance had seen us lose at Sid James Park against Kevin Keegan’s Premier League-bound Newcastle, which left us dangling rather precariously above the First Division trapdoor. So with just three games left it was very much a case of all hands to the pump.
However, our last home league game of 1992-93 couldn’t really have been harder, for we were up against high-flying Portsmouth who, like Newcastle, had their sights set on the Premier League.
Thus in a twist to the tale, Pompey - managed at the time by Jim Smith, who’d once of course occupied the Sid James Park hotseat - would be as needy of the three points as we were. So the game then had all the ingredients for a real cracker, in what was sure to be a highly-charged atmosphere, and a crowd of 21,309 - our second-best home attendance of the season - were present for this vital game.
This included some 6,000 or so Portsmouth fans who’d made the long journey North and had turned the Roker End into a blue and white sea, while they’d also been in good voice long before the kick-off.
And it was the visitors who were first to threaten when Paul Walsh was fouled by Gordon Armstrong and ex-Mag Bjorn Kristensen aimed the free-kick towards Pompey dangerman Guy Whittingham, but fortunately Terry Butcher was able to clear.
We soon responded with an attack of our own, and keeper Alan Knight was forced to save well in quick succession, firstly when he dealt with a dangerous Gary Owers cross, then when Peter Davenport tried his luck from twenty-five yards.
Perhaps not surprisingly in view of what was at stake, the game was being played in a lively fashion as both sides strove to force the vital breakthrough. Martin Gray had to be alert to clear the danger on no less than three occasions when Guy Whittingham threatened. But we were still very much a threat ourselves and Peter Davenport, having got himself into a promising position was foiled by a last-gasp challenge by Kit Symons, then Shaun Cunnington shot rather tamely wide.
Don Goodman then had a goal disallowed, after it was ruled that Alan Knight had been fouled after a challenge by Terry Butcher, following a free-kick from Gary Owers.
Whittingham then missed a great chance for Pompey, when he fired against Tony Norman’s legs when it seemed easier to score, then when play switched to the other end almost immediately, Don Goodman was guilty of a bad miss when he volleyed over the bar from just outside the box. Cunnington released Davenport who shot just past the post, though the flag had already gone up for offside.
In the thirty-sixth minute we forced the vital breakthrough, though we did need a bit of a helping hand - quite literally! A cross from Owers aimed for the head of Goodman was punched clear by Knight, but only as far as Gordon Armstrong, who neatly chipped the ball towards the empty net. But just when we were about to celebrate the opening goal, Pompey defender Guy Butters managed to get back to clear from the line - albeit goalkeeper style; with his fists. This left the referee with no choice but to dismiss Butters, and Don Goodman stepped up to gleefully convert the resulting spot-kick, and settle the nerves of both players and fans alike.
Boosted by this vital breakthrough, and now with a man advantage, we continued to press and shortly before the break we thought we’d got a second goal, when Gary Owers centre was converted by Gary Bennett. However, our celebrations were cut short when Benno’s header was ruled out for offside.
So 1-0 then at the break and the lads, on returning to the pitch for the second-period, were given a similar reception to that which they’d received when they left, i.e. a warm round of applause. But we soon found ourselves on the defensive as the visitors sought to retrieve the deficit, when Paul Walsh and Mark Chamberlain set up a chance for Alan McLaughlin, whose low drive brought a fine diving save from Tony Norman.
After fifty-minutes we gave ourselves a bit of breathing space with a second goal. Peter Davenport beat Kristensen and played a great ball to Don Goodman, and our player of the season then strode past Symons only to be brought down by the Pompey defender as he shaped to shoot inside the box. Goodman himself took the kick, firing the ball low into the net to send the Fulwell End crowd - and indeed the whole of Roker Park - wild with delight.
We were now very much on top at this stage, a fact emphasised when we made it 3-0 in the fifty-seventy minute courtesy of a move started and finished by Martin Gray. The young defender won the ball in the centre circle, ran strongly at the Pompey defence, and then played a neat one-two with Peter Davenport before beating Alan Knight with a crisp, low shot.
So game over more or less, and Portsmouth’s frustration perhaps showed when Paul Walsh was booked for a theatrical dive in a somewhat vain attempt to win a penalty, an action which was later to prove costly for the visiting forward.
Chamberlain missed a great chance for the visitors after having been set up by a great run and cross by Whittingham, then in the sixty-ninth minute Portsmouth’s task really did become mission: impossible when they were reduced to nine men. Paul Walsh, having already entered the referee’s notebook, fouled Martin Gray in an off-the-ball incident and was promptly showed the red card, and the ex-Liverpool and Spurs man then added insult to injury when he appeared to lash out at a steward as he left the pitch.
Bjorn Kristensen and substitute George Lawrence then both came close as Pompey desperately tried to retrieve what was in effect a lost cause, but then in the seventy-sixth minute, we rounded off what had been a fine afternoon’s work with a well-worked fourth goal: a Brian Atkinson cross from the right was destined for Don Goodman, who was no doubt keen to claim his hat-trick, but the ball evaded our top goalscorer.
Thankfully though Gordon Armstrong was lurking behind him, and he promptly swept the ball home. Peter Davenport then came close to adding to the tally, before Don Goodman twice came close to claiming his hat-trick. But Portsmouth did add a touch of respectability to the scoreline when Whittingham netted near the end, though this proved to be nothing more than a consolation effort.
4-1 then, in what would eventually prove to be our best win of 1992-93, and it no doubt left a lot of our fans reflecting on what might have been had we produced such performances/results more often during the course of the season - maybe battling it out with the Mags for promotion to the Premier League? As it happened the welcome win couldn’t have come at a more vital time, for it lifted us up to eighteenth spot in the First Division, though, due to results in other matches affecting the bottom, we were still only a point off the bottom three and with a lot more work to do in order to try and secure our First Division status.
But then perhaps not surprisingly, the good work against Pompey was soon to come undone, for defeat at another promotion-seeking side - Tranmere Rovers just three days later - meant we had to endure a nerve-jangling do-or-die encounter with fellow relegation candidates Notts County on the season’s final day.
Couldn’t have been scripted better really!
Maybe the less said about the rather horrendous 1-3 defeat at Meadow Lane the better, though we did ultimately cling onto our First Division place by the skin of our teeth and by a single point, but only thanks to defeats for two of our other companions-in-distress, Brentford and Cambridge, who thus accompanied Bristol Rovers in the drop to the Second Division. Another harsh lesson of sorts then, and while we’d failed miserably to rise to the occasion at Notts County, it was just as well that we’d managed to do so in that other vital game against Pompey.
Who ever said that Sunderland AFC do things the easy way?