One novelty aspect to our first-ever taste of third tier football in 1987-88 was that we encountered no less than eight clubs for the first time at league level, namely Aldershot, Chester City, Chesterfield, Doncaster Rovers, Gillingham, Port Vale, Southend United and Wigan Athletic.
Two of these clubs - Aldershot and Southend - had actually been promoted from the (old) Fourth Division at the end of the previous season, and having seen off The Shots early in October by 3-1 at Roker Park, Southend then made the long journey North for a first-ever visit to Roker for our first home league fixture of November 1987. And as events panned out, we were to send the Shrimpers back to Essex with their tails very much between their legs!
Denis Smith was undoubtedly seeking a positive reaction to the 1-2 reverse at one of our other promotion rivals, Notts County on the Saturday, when we had in all truth put in our worst league performance of the season to date.
However, as events turned out, in spite of their lowly league position Southend would still prove to be no pushovers, as was exemplified when they nearly took an early lead after just twenty seconds, when Glenn Pennyfather shot wide from a good position.
The visitors then emphasised their attacking threat when Frank Gray had to clear an effort from Martin Ling off the line. Who knows then how the game may have panned out had either/both of these efforts gone in.
However in between these two scares, Paul Atkinson had missed a great chance for us after four minutes when he headed an inch-perfect centre from Marco Gabbiadini just wide of the upright. But generally speaking we’d still seemed to take a while to get going in the first-half, so it was something of a relief when we took the lead just after the half-hour mark.
Richard Ord, making what would turn out to be an impressive debut, picked out Marco Gabbiadini with an astute pass and while Marco momentarily lost control of the ball, he then regained possession and his composure, and went on to beat a defender and keeper Eric Steele to score from an acute angle.
Steele then had to be at his best to deny Eric Gates shortly afterwards but Southend showed that they still posed a threat when they twice went close to an equaliser.
Firstly when Martin Robinson headed narrowly wide following a free-kick, then Andy Rogers struck the bar with Iain Hesford well beaten. But we then took a firm hold of the game with two goals in quick succession, and for our second of the evening after forty-two minutes, Richard Ord was again the instigator, when he played a super defence-splitting pass to Paul Atkinson, who beat Steele with a fine effort.
Then right on the break we made it 3-0, and this time Atkinson turned provider when his centre picked out Eric Gates who, despite appearing to have handled when controlling the ball, was still allowed to go on and fire the ball home.
A 3-0 half-time lead did tend to flatter us somewhat, what on the basis of our first-half performance as a whole, though doubtless the home support were rather happy and at the same time expectant of more goals to come in the second period - and they were not to be disappointed!
Denis Smith’s half-time talk appeared to do the trick and we appeared more purposeful after the break, and as such were rewarded with a fourth goal in the forty-ninth minute, though it was in all truth a gift.
Eric Steele and Southend player-manager Paul Clark got themselves in a tangle, and Eric Gates took full advantage to claim his second goal of the night. Just eight minutes later we were celebrating a fifth goal when John Kay and Paul Lemon - the latter on as a substitute for John Cornforth - combined well to set up Paul Atkinson, who put himself on course for a hat-trick when he fired the ball home, much to the delight of the home fans.
Paul Lemon then cracked a fierce drive a shade too high and Atkinson just failed to grab his hat-trick after being set up by Gary Owers.
Marco Gabbiadini had a low drive well saved by Steele but Southend, despite being so heavily in arrears, still weren’t prepared to lie down completely and they proceeded to cause us one or two uneasy moments, though Iain Hesford and his defence dealt capably with the visitors threat.
After eighty-two minutes we made it six when Marco Gabbiadini, intercepting a bad back-pass by Derek Hall, found himself clear on goal with only Steele to beat, but instead of going it alone he selflessly squared the ball to Eric Gates, who gleefully claimed his hat-trick.
Gary Owers then had a goal disallowed when play was pulled back by the referee after Gordon Armstrong had been fouled in the build-up, but Armstrong set up Eric Gates to complete the rout with his fourth goal of the game a minute from time.
So a splendid night’s work, this emphatic win was our seventh in eight league games and also our fourth home league win on the bounce, while our goal difference of course took a more than welcome boost! We later completed the ‘double’ over Southend, winning 4-1 at Roots Hall in April on our way to both promotion and the Third Division Championship. This meant that our two meetings had produced an 11-1 aggregate win, not a bad double indeed!