Sunderland v Wigan Athletic - a fixture at one time no-one would have contemplated, certainly not in the league. However, our heartbreaking relegation at the end of season 1986-87 would see us cross paths with no less than EIGHT clubs for the first time at league level, Wigan being one of them, and this was in fact the third successive home game in which we’d broken new ground - prior to Wigan’s visit to Roker the previous two home games had seen Chester and Aldershot on Wearside for the first-time ever.
The Latics had missed out in the play-offs the previous campaign but were no doubt fancied in the Third Division promotion stakes again this time round, and as such they’d began the campaign in promising style. Prior to their historic first-ever visit to Roker the Lancastrians lay just five places below us in the Third Division table, so our meeting in effect took the mantle of an early season six-pointer.
In our side we had a new secret weapon in the shape of Marco Gabbiadini, our recent signing from York who’d netted four goals in his previous two games, and this was the game which in effect marked the beginning of a profitable partnership between Marco and Eric Gates. For in spite of the soggy conditions, we produced a performance and result which I at least felt really spelt out that we meant business in Division Three and that we intended to make our stay in that particular section as brief as possible.
Our side showed just one change to that which had beaten Aldershot the previous week when John Cornforth replaced Paul Lemon in midfield after the latter had suffered a groin strain.
We almost grabbed a first-minute lead when Marco raced through the middle and held off a challenge by Alex Cribley, but his attempt to side-foot the ball home was foiled by Wigan’s on-loan keeper David Redfern.
However we were soon back on the offensive when we won our first corner of the game thanks to some determined play by Eric Gates, but unfortunately John Cornforth’s inswinger came to nothing. Paul Atkinson then mis-hit a close range effort wide of the target, and then when Wigan responded Gary Bennett blocked a long-range effort from Paul Jewell. We held the upper hand, and Marco Gabbiadini again tested David Redfern with a fierce effort.
Redfern and two of his defenders then had to act quickly to foil a promising run by John Kay, then Kay set up a great chance for Gary Owers, who was caught in two minds whether to pass or have a shot. He opted for the latter, but his rather weak effort travelled harmlessly across the face of goal.
Then when play switched to the other end a dangerous-looking centre just eluded both Chris Thompson and Andy Griffiths, but then the game burst into life with four goals inside a rather crazy ten-minute spell - and it was sparked off in the nineteenth minute when we deservedly took the lead.
Steve Doyle picked out Gary Owers with a great through ball, and the youngster’s pin-point cross found Eric Gates whose powerful header left David Redfern helpless. Before Wigan had had time to recover we made it 2-0. This time Gabbiadini was the architect behind the move when he held off Andy Holden before pulling the ball back for Eric Gates to slam home our second goal from close range.
The visitors were clearly stunned by this rather rapid two-goal burst but to their credit they responded positively, and halved the deficit with a well-worked goal in the twenty-fifth minute. A centre from Ian Griffiths picked out Paul Jewell, who beat Iain Hesford with a well-placed shot which brought applause even from some sections of the home support.
This merely proved to be temporary respite for The Lancastrians, for just four minutes later we restored our two-goal advantage. And as with our first goal, Gary Owers was the provider when he produced another inch-perfect centre this time to find Marco Gabbaidini, who notched his fifth goal in just three matches. Quite a start to his Sunderland career!
In the next minute it could have been 4-1 but Marco was foiled by David Redfern after having raced clear of the Wigan defence, then just past the half-hour mark we had a goal disallowed when Steve Doyle’s effort was cancelled out for a handball offence committed by Eric Gates. The one-way traffic continued unchecked, and Eric Gates was denied his hat-trick by great save by David Redfern as the goalkeeper flung himself to his right to keep out our ex-Ipswich strikers powerful eighteen-yard effort. Just before the break John Cornforth had a fierce effort charged down by the overworked Wigan keeper, who then pounced on the rebound before Gary Owers could take advantage.
3-1 then at the break. It had been a sound first-half’s work, and doubtless Wigan feared that they may end up on the end of a real drubbing such had been the battering they’d been subjected to so far.
It was the visitors who were the first to threaten after the break, and Iain Hesford was called upon to deal with a dangerous free-kick from Ian Griffiths. But normal service was soon resumed, and John Cornforth picked out Marco Gabbiadini with a neat pass - his sheer determination took him past Andy Holden, and when the young striker set up Eric Gates the latter was denied his hat-trick only by an alert and brave piece of goalkeeping by David Redfern.
Wigan then began to show a bit more purpose, and a promising move for the visitors was halted by an offside decision. Then Stuart Storer caused one or two moments of anxiety, firstly when he beat Rueben Agboola before firing in a low centre which was comfortably taken by Iain Hesford, then Paul Atkinson was called upon to help out in defence when the pacy Wigan midfielder threatened again.
Fortunately Wigan’s revival was only brief, and we nearly made it 4-1 when Gary Owers beat two opponents only for Andy Holden to block his cross at the expense of a corner. From Paul Atkinson’s corner, Marco Gabbiadini’s header was well saved by David Redfern.
The fourth goal which we’d been threatening duly arrived just after the hour-mark when a powerful header from John McPhail sent Marco Gabbiadini clear, and the youngster calmly evaded the challenge of both Redfern and a defender before walking the ball into the net.
There was to be no let-up in the amount of pressure on the Wigan goal, and John McPhail and John Cornforth combined well to present a chance for Marco Gabbiadini, but when the ball bounced away from our new goal-getter to Eric Gates the latter’s first-time shot lifted well over the bar.
A beleaguered Wigan were simply being ripped to shreds by our constant onslaught, and Gary Owers passed up three great chances to add to our goal tally as well as complete his own threesome. Marco Gabbiadini then narrowly failed to complete his hat-trick with a lobbed effort which just missed the target.
So the game ended 4-1 - another great performance, and it had been a fine afternoon’s entertainment for the crowd of just under 14,000 who braved the wet conditions.
The third successive victory also put us back on top of the Third Division table, albeit in on goal difference from Walsall and Bristol City, and as had been the case with the previous home game against Aldershot, the result tended to flatter our opponents. Our challenge for promotion seemed to be taking shape rather nicely.