The 1980’s had proved to have been a pretty turbulent period for Sunderland AFC. We’d began the decade in rather inglorious fashion, losing 1-3 at Sid. James Park on New Year’s Day 1980, but a few months later we were celebrating a return to the big time when we achieved promotion as Second Division runners-up. However, far from proving to be a bright new chapter in our history, what followed was an all-too-familiar scenario, i.e. an almost constant struggle for First Division survival, and a five-year stint amongst England’s elite ended perhaps predictably with relegation in 1985, compounded by defeat in the Milk Cup Final at Wembley in the same year.
This was nothing compared to what was to immediately follow, for under the guidance (if that is indeed the correct term to use) of he-who-is-best-not-named, we embarked upon the worst period in our history (at least until the present day), when the unthinkable prospect of Third Division football on Wearside became reality, the culmination of two disastrous Second Division campaigns.
As the 80’s neared their conclusion, so our fortunes took a turn for the better. For after winning the Third Division at a canter in 1988, we then achieved a respectable 11th place in the Second Division in 1989, and as we prepared to enter a new decade, the signs were looking quite encouraging early on in season 1989-90. The opening four games produced wins at another fancied side, Swindon, on the first day, and at Roker against our newly-demoted Teesside rivals, Middlesbrough. We’d also collected a point from another side with First Division ambitions, West Bromwich Albion - the only black mark to date had been a 2-4 reverse against Ipswich, yet another of the pre-season promotion hopefuls, in the first home league game of the season. Our fifth league engagement of 89-90 would, on paper at least, be another challenging affair, when high-flying Watford visited Roker Park.
The Hornets, having lost out in the play-offs the previous season, were no doubt hopeful of another crack at promotion, and had made a bright start to the new campaign, having taken eight points from their first four games, and as such lay five places above us in second place, separated from top spot only on goal difference from another of the relegated sides, West Ham. So the scene was set then for a cracker of a game between two potential promotion candidates, and that’s exactly how it would turn out, at least as far as we were concerned.
Our side showed just one change to that held 1-1 at West Bromwich Albion the previous week, for Tony Norman, who’d held an ever-present tag for us since his move from Hull in December 1988, had suffered a broken arm at The Hawthorns, an injury which was likely to keep him out of action for several weeks. So Tim Carter came in for what was only his fourth appearance for us, and Carter was soon tested early on when he flicked away a header from Paul Wilkinson, who’d been set up for a free-kick by Sunderland-born Gary Porter. However, this turned out to be purely academic, as we were awarded a free-kick for an offside offence.
But we were soon on the offensive ourselves, and after a header from Paul Hardyman had lacked sufficient power to trouble Tony Coton, we stormed back to take a sixth-minute lead following a well-worked move, started by our new signing Paul Bracewell. He played the ball out to wide to Rueben Agboola, who in turn found Colin Pascoe, and the Welshman’s right-wing centre picked out Gordon Armstrong, whose header was pushed against the post by Coton. However, Armstrong was then quickest to react, and he gleefully forced the ball home.
Boosted by this early advantage, we continued to press and could have added to our lead in the very next minute. Marco Gabbiadini was fouled just outside the penalty area, and following Paul Bracewell’s quickly-taken free-kick, Gabbiadini and Eric Gates both just failed to make contact.
A ferocious drive from Colin Pascoe then struck David Holdsworth, who needed treatment before the game could resume. Then Watford showed that they possessed a fair bit of potency up front, and Gary Thompson caused one or two anxious moments for our rearguard, while Paul Wilkinson fired wide from a good position after being teed up by Thompson.
We almost increased our lead in the 19th minute, when our own live-wire Marco Gabbiadini’s pace set up a great chance for Colin Pascoe, and while the latter’s low shot beat Tony Coton, it also travelled narrowly wide of the upright. Then shortly afterwards, and following the breakdown of a Watford corner, Eric Gates found the other half of the “G Force” with an astute pass, who bore down on goal, but Marco was denied by a last-gasp challenge by Kenny Jackett.
Undeterred, we maintained the pressure and a great run by Gary Owers presented a chance for Marco Gabbiadini, though our ace marksman failed in his attempt to beat Tony Coton when he came under pressure from Glenn Roeder. Gordon Armstrong and Eric Gates then combined well to set up another chance for Gabbiadini, whose header forced a fine save from Tony Coton, although the referee had already indicated that Marco had indulged in a spot of pushing as he went for the ball.
Colin Pascoe then came close with a volleyed effort which just cleared the bar, following some uncertainty in the visitors defence. When played switched briefly to the other end, Paul Wilkinson headed a centre from Nigel Gibbs straight at Tim Carter, before a promising move for the visitors ended when Wilkinson was caught offside soon afterwards.
Then in a rather dramatic five minute spell we took a stranglehold on the game. In the 39th minute we doubled our advantage following a fine move, when Gary Bennett, Eric Gates and Colin Pascoe all combined to set up Marco Gabbiadini, who beat Tony Coton with a thunderous strike from the edge of the penalty area. Coton then made a tremendous save to deny Eric Gates, but the future Sunderland ‘keeper was helpless a minute before the break, when we made it 3-0, after Marco shrugged off a challenge from David Holdsworth, before beating the Watford stopper with another powerful effort. Gabbiadini could have have his hat-trick just before the break, but his curling effort was just off-target.
3-0 then at half-time, it had certainly been a treat for the home faithful at least in the first-half. The pattern was very much the same in the second period, and it took a timely interception from Glenn Roeder to prevent Marco Gabbiadini from bursting clear. Then in the fifty-first minute we should have made it 4-0, when Rueben Agboola found Marco, who was clearly held inside the box by Glenn Roeder. However, the referee rather surprisingly allowed play to continue and the ball fell to Eric Gates, but with the goal more or less at his mercy, he curled his effort just over the angle with Coton well beaten. We then missed another good chance shortly afterwards when Gabbiadini played a great first-time pass across the face of goal to Colin Pascoe, who rather inexplicably put the ball wide when it seemed easier to score.
Up until now Tim Carter had not been seriously tested, but he proved his worth with his first, and perhaps only real save of note in the entire game, when he dealt comfortably with a free-kick from Neil Redfearn, which the ‘keeper perhaps saw late through a crowded goalmouth. But then normal service was resumed, and when Marco Gabbidini went past Tony Coton and played the ball into the goalmouth from a difficult angle, David Holdsworth was forced to clear from the line. The one-way traffic continued, and Watford had to rely on another goal line clearance, this time when Kenny Jackett blocked an Eric Gates effort on the goal line.
Our pressure had eventually to pay dividends, and pay dividends it did in the 70th minute, when we grabbed a well-deserved fourth goal. A long ball out of defence by Rueben Agboola picked out Gabbiadini, and our young goal-getter shrugged off a challenge by Glenn Roeder, before going on to once more leave Tony Coton helpless.
Game over then, mainly due to Marco’s second hat-trick for Sunderland. His first had come in the 4-0 home win against Ipswich the previous season, but unfortunately on that occasion, he’d seen red for retaliation after having notched his third goal. Thankfully on this latest occasion, there was to be no repeat!
In fact, Glenn Roeder was lucky not to have received a red card not long afterwards, when he appeared to have lashed out at Gabbiadini after we’d been awarded a free-kick. But we kept up our attacking momentum, and nearly added a fifth goal, but after some neat approach work from Marco, his final pass to his strike partner Eric Gates was just a shade too short.
So the game ended 4-0, our first home clean sheet of the season, a hat-trick from our goal-getter-in-chief, it had been a fine afternoon’s work. The win also enabled us to displace Watford from 2nd place, and we’d remain unbeaten during the remainder of September. However the Watford victory would prove to be one of just two wins in that period, for four of our six games during the month would end all-square, including the next home game against the Mags, who also had their sights on the First Division following relegation the previous season. The win against Watford, as well as surely being our best home success to date, no doubt spelled out that we meant business in 1989-90, and that certainly proved true - for while the season ended in disappointment at Wembley, fate dictated that we’d start the first full season of the 90’s the same way we’d began our first full campaign of the 80’s, i.e. back in the First Division.