On the 30th April 1988 we were just one win away from an instant return to the Second Division, while three points would also virtually guarantee us the Third Division title - and rather ironically the venue was in manager Denis Smith’s home town of Stoke.
So the scenario was straightforward: win and we’d be assured of Second Division football on Wearside again come August 1988, while if the vital clash at Fellows Park between our promotion rivals Walsall and Notts County failed to produce a winner then we’d be also be celebrating the Third Division Championship.
So for this vital game we relied on the same side which had triumphed emphatically by 4-0 at Mansfield the previous Tuesday and we were backed by a sizable travelling support in the crowd of 7569, Port Vale’s best home gate of the season so far.
However it was the home side who started the brightest, when they forced a corner in the first minute which was comfortably dealt with by Iain Hesford. Then Darren Beckford and David Riley combined well, but the latter eventually shot wide when he came under pressure from Gary Bennett.
We gradually worked our way into the game, and our first real chance came after eight minutes play. The moved was started by Paul Lemon who then found Marco Gabbiadini, who cleverly beat Phil Sproson before crossing to Gordon Armstrong at the far post. Armstrong was unable connect cleanly, but the ball ran kindly for Eric Gates, whose powerful close-range effort was superbly turned behind by Vale keeper Mark Grew.
We then began to get on top, and after we’d forced another corner soon after this was only partially cleared as far as Frank Gray. Gray then released Gary Bennett wide on the left, and when the latter crossed into the middle Alan Webb had to clear with a diving header to prevent the ball reaching the unmarked Eric Gates and Marco Gabbiadini.
It was now very much one-way traffic, and twice in quick succession Marco Gabbiadini was close to giving us the lead following dangerous centres from Colin Pascoe. Firstly, our ace striker headed into the side netting, although in all truth he should really have played the ball back for a colleague, then he sent a brave diving header over the bar.
Neat play between Eric Gates and Paul Lemon almost set up a chance for Gordon Armstrong, but Phil Sproson had spotted the danger and was able to get the ball back to Mark Grew.
Grew then came to his side’s rescue again in the twenty-fifth minute when a mistake by centre-half Bob Hazell let in Colin Pascoe, who played the ball into the path of Paul Lemon - but his first-time effort from about twelve yards was beaten out by the Vale keeper.
Vale then responded briefly, but when Darren Beckford got clear on the right his attempt to find a colleague in the centre was intercepted by Gary Bennett. But normal service was soon resumed, however, our attacking efforts were being more or less continually foiled by the home side’s rather frustrating use of the offside trap. Paul Lemon did however manage to stay onside, but his subsequent centre was easily dealt with by Mark Grew.
There was then cause for a spot of anxiety when a bad mistake by Gary Bennett let in Darren Beckford who set up a chance for Gary Ford - but his first-time effort thankfully was a shade too high.
The home side were now starting to force their way back into the game, though Gary Ford’s snapshot was comfortably save by Iain Hesford. Then when play switched to the to the other end in the forty-second minute, Paul Lemon released Marco Gabbiadini on the right, but unfortunately he was unable to get the ball into the middle despite two attempts.
So the first-half ended goalless - we’d been the better side overall, but had perhaps lacked that real killer touch in front of goal. Would we then end up being frustrated?
As it happened, thankfully not, though it would still take a while for us to force the vital breakthrough. However, we re-commenced our quest for three vital points in the shape of a positive start to the second period, and when Bob Hazell fouled Marco Gabbiadini just outside the box Paul Lemon’s dangerous inswinger was headed clear by Darren Hughes.
Vale were quick to respond, though Iain Hesford comfortably dealt with Darren Beckford’s shot on the run. John Kay then sent a twenty-five effort well wide, then Eric Gates just failed to find Colin Pascoe after a promising move initiated by Steve Doyle. Bob Hazell then conceded another free-kick, this time for handball, and John McPhail came very close to capitalizing on the opportunity when his header almost deceived Mark Grew, who was just able to save at the foot of the post.
Then it was the home side’s turn to attack again, and when Gary Bennett rather casually allowed a rather hopeful through ball to travel on to Iain Hesford, David Riley was quickly to spot the opportunity - but fortunately for us, he shot over the top.
Marco Gabbiadini then had a shot deflected behind for a corner, after some neat play by both Paul Lemon and Colin Pascoe, and when Gordon Armstrong’s inswinger was turned behind again, his second attempt was headed clear. Armstrong then linked up well with Paul Lemon to set up Marco Gabbiadini, who forced another great save from Mark Grew, surely a contender for man-of-the-match, as he continued to frustrate us.
Steve Doyle then had to be alert to relieve a dangerous situation when David Riley tried to capitalize on at mistake by John Kay, and when play immediately switched to the other end Mark Grew had to race from his goal to deny Marco Gabbiadini a scoring chance.
The goal we so craved finally came in the seventy-ninth minute, following another corner.
Gordon Armstrong’s inswinger picked out Marco Gabbiadini, whose effort was blocked, but Marco’s strike partner Eric Gates was onto the rebound in a flash to net his twentieth goal of the season, and at the same time send the travelling hoards behind the goal wild with delight.
So a breakthrough at last, and the Second Division loomed that little bit nearer - and right at the death it looked as if we were about to put the result beyond all doubt, when Marco Gabbiadini appeared to have beaten Mark Grew with a low drive, but somehow the keeper managed to scoop the ball away. The loose ball was retrieved by Colin Pascoe, who centred to find Gordon Armstrong but he mis-kicked with the goal at his mercy.
Not that there was any real need to worry, for shortly afterwards the referee blew for full-time, which was also the cue for mass celebrations on the part of the Sunderland players, management and fans.
So that was it. Mission accomplished - nut as far as the Championship was concerned, Walsall’s home win against Notts County meant that technically we still needed a point from our remaining two games to take the title. Though having said that, with goal difference the way it was, Walsall would now have to win their last two games and with a goal aggregate of 20-0 to have even a chance of overtaking us - a bit of an unlikely scenario!
However, it all became purely academic the following bank holiday Monday afternoon when Walsall’s rather shock 0-3 defeat at Bristol Rovers settled the issue without us having even kicked a ball. This result meant that we went into our final home game of 1987-88 confirmed as Third Division Champions, and thus the promotion party could now begin!
We ended our home programme in style, winning 3-1 against Northampton in front of a crowd of nearly 30,000 (what would eventually turn out to be the North East’s best of the season), before concluding our commitments for the season as we’d started them with an 4-1 away win at Rotherham.
The heartbreak associated with the Mackemenemy era could be banished for good as we now looked forward over the summer months to Second Division football in 1988-89 - lets hope for a similar tale come May 2020.