Over the years I’ve seen some one-side games involving Sunderland and in one or two we’ve taken some real batterings, i.e. that 0-8 humiliation at Watford in 1982 springs rather readily to mind. However, the Coca-Cola Cup defeat against Aston Villa at Roker Park in October 1993 really was a travesty of justice, for 4-1 in the end really flattered ‘Big Ron‘s’ side, who’d been subjected to one hell of a pounding by Sunderland, and thus were probably grateful to be in the hat for the fourth round draw.
We’d overcome another Premier League side - Leeds - in the previous round and had subsequently drawn another plum home tie in the shape of Aston Villa, who’d finished as Premier League runners-up the previous season and were going well again in 1993-94.
But in spite of the difference in league status there was still a feeling that we may pull off another shock to hopefully give our league form, which had been rather indifferent to date, a bit of a boost.
However, while we rose to the occasion rather splendidly, one man was to stand between us and further progress in the 1993-94 League Cup, namely Villa’s Aussie ‘keeper Mark Bosnich, who tended to defy not only the laws of gravity but also physics and other branches of science into the bargain. His human octopus-like display was to frustrate us time and time again as we relentlessly pounded the Villa goal.
With an all-ticket crowd of 23,692 present at Roker, the atmosphere was electric and even reminiscent perhaps of the famous cup run of 1973, as we began very positively, attacking the Fulwell End.
However, in spite of our bright start, there was no early goal to celebrate as had been the case in the home leg versus Leeds in the previous round, for Mark Bosnich gave a sign of what was to come when he saved a smart effort from Gordon Armstrong, before a header from Don Goodman flashed narrowly wide. Undeterred, we continued to pour forward, though it seemed that Bosnich was intent on producing a one-man show of sorts as he clawed away a header from Gordon Armstrong one-handed.
Martin Smith then shot wide from a good position before Bosnich produced another flying save to turn away a header from Phil Gray.
It was then that we fell for the old sucker-punch, for in their first real attack of the game Villa went ahead. Newcastle-born Kevin Richardson - who was later of course to join the coaching staff at SAFC - released Dalian Atkinson, who left Kevin Ball and Andy Melville trailing in his wake as he went on to beat Alec Chamberlain with a decisive strike.
Rough justice maybe, and certainly against the run of play, but we responded positively. There then came what was in effect the game’s turning point: Mark Bosnich continued to break our hearts, this time when he foiled Goodman and Gray, then in another quick counter-attack/reversal of the move which led to Villa’s first goal, the visitors quite incredibly edged further in front when Atkinson broke to centre for Richardson to convert and give his side a 2-0 interval lead, which, on the balance of play, was scarcely deserved.
However, just a minute after the break we gave ourselves some hope and at the same time proved that Mark Bosnich is only human after all. A centre from Gary Bennett was met in the air by Goodman, who headed down for Gray to fire home with Villa’s keeper flat-footed.
But Bosnich was soon up to his old tricks again when he turned a fine effort from Martin Smith over the bar. Alec Chamberlain then pulled off a great save to deny Andy Townsend, then Villa’s substitution of Ray Houghton for Guy Whittingham was to pay rich dividends, for the Republic Of Ireland international was to score the third goal, which effectively killed off the tie.
James Lawrence failed to cut out a centre from Dalian Atkinson, and Houghton took full advantage to make it 3-1. Game over. Then after Chamberlain had saved well from Dalian Atkinson, and Don Goodman had forced another save from the irrepressible Bosnich, Villa added insult to injury by adding a fourth goal to their tally.
Dalian Atkinson ran at our defence, and indeed there appeared to be no danger, but the Villa striker’s shot took a wicked deflection off Kevin Ball and looped over the stranded Alec Chamberlain to nestle in the back of our net.
So 1-4 then, and it was quite hard to take in the events of the night, for as mentioned before the result tended to flatter Villa, such had been our dominance. Then again, in all fairness, Ron Atkinson’s side had given us a lesson in the art of effective counter-attacking/finishing, while as for a certain Mr. Bosnich, what could one really say?
Only that he produced the most incredible display of goalkeeping I’ve ever witnessed at Roker Park. A disappointing result then, but we later had the consolation of knowing that we’d been beaten by the eventual winners, for Villa were to go all the way to Wembley where they defeated Manchester United 3-1 to thus Alex Ferguson’s side the treble.
As for ourselves, League Cup success has continued to elude us since, with our final appearance in 2014 the best we’ve managed. Maybe our luck will change in 2019-20? After all, our conquerors on that October night in 1993 had reached the final as a third-tier side way back in 1971 (and were by all accounts unlucky to lose to the mighty Spurs), so what odds that we may emulate their feat next season, but succeed where Villa failed, to thus record our first-ever league cup success? Would be nice!