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Tales From The Stands: Sunderland 1-0 Barnsley (1988) - Mystery goal, but still 3 points

Christmas in ‘88 brought some good fortune to the struggling to the Sunderland team of yore, courtesy of controversy - Andrew Cockburn walks us through it.

Danny Roberts

Following a rather tepid start to our Second Division “comeback” season of 1988-89, we’d gradually found our feet and as such, following our first away win of the campaign - at Oxford in early November - we stood eighth in the Second Division table, and looked a fairly good bet at least for a place in the play-offs.

However, it was then that we hit another rocky patch in the shape of a six-game winless run, which included four 1-1 draws (though two of these were against high-flying Chelsea and Watford), while there was also a rather inglorious 0-3 defeat at struggling Brighton, and another away reverse at Leicester in early December. All of which meant that by the time the Festive season was almost up on us, we’d slipped down into the lower regions of the table, seven points from the play-off zone, and the same number from the bottom three.

But just when some of us may have been fearing a relegation battle, there came a turning point of sorts when we proceeded to put on what I considered to be our best away league performance so far, after we gained an early Christmas present of sorts, by defeating Plymouth 4-1 at Home Park. And just for good measure, highlights of this fine win were shown on TV, a consolation of sorts for those who’d been unable to make the long trek to the South West.

And this fine win seemed to inject fresh life into us, and put us in fine fettle for our Boxing Day clash with Barnsley at Roker Park. The Tykes as they are also known, lay six places above us in the Second Division table prior to the game, and were just two points of the play-off zone. So with ourselves also seeking to make up ground on the leaders, the game was something of a “six-pointer”. We were also on a bit of revenge mission of sorts, for our previous home meeting with Allan Clarke’s side, on the final day of season 1986-87, had seen us go down 2-3, after having led 2-0 at one stage; a result which condemned us to the play-offs. None of us will need reminding what happened then!

Perhaps not surprisingly, manager Denis Smith kept faith with the side which had triumphed so well at Plymouth. So in front of a bumper Boxing Day crowd of almost 22,000, our best home gate of the season so far, and playing towards the Fulwell End in the first-half, we began brightly, and twice had chances to grab an early lead. First of all in the eighth minute, a neat flick by Eric Gates set his striking partner Marco Gabbiadini clear, however, our ace goal-getter hurried his shot when he perhaps had more time than he realised, and Barnsley keeper Clive Baker was able to block the effort. Then just a minute later, Gabbiadini again passed up a good chance, for after a surging run had seen him leave two Barnsley defenders in his wake, he chose to go for goal only to hit the side netting, when he had colleagues in the middle who perhaps had been better placed to take advantage.

Undeterred, we maintained the pressure, and a powerful twenty-five yard effort from Colin Pascoe was superbly tipped away by Baker, then Marco Gabbiadini, who was certainly proving to be a handful for the visitors, was just off-target with a header. Then in a somewhat brief moment of danger at the other end, Tim Carter distinguished himself with a fine one-handed save from Barnsley dangerman David Currie. Normal service was soon resumed though, and Colin Pascoe looked like he might break the deadlock, but his fiercely-hit effort was deflected behind by Paul McGugan, as the first period ended goalless, maybe a bit an injustice, such had been our dominance of proceedings.

The second-half began in very much the same way, and Clive Baker made a fine stop with his foot to deny Marco Gabbiadini, who’d been set up by a fine piece of play by Richard Ord. Indeed, we were finding it hard to pierce a rather resolute Barnsley rearguard, and Clive Baker in particular was proving to be a bit of a thorn in our side, as he denied us time and time again. It looked like it was going to be one of those days.

Just when it seemed that we’d have to be content with a point, another fine save from Baker, this time when he pushed an angled drive from Marco Gabbiadini round the post for a corner, led to us taking the lead, though there would initially be an element of controversy and confusion as to just who’d finally broken the deadlock; after Gary Owers left-wing flag kick caused a fair degree of unrest in the Barnsley defence, Gordon Armstrong looked like he’d forced the ball home, before Paul Futcher cleared off the line. But unfortunately for Futcher and his colleagues the ball rebounded straight back into the net, and while Gordon Armstrong claimed he got the final touch, eventually it was credited as an own-goal by Jim Dobbin.

Not that it really mattered too much, for we’d finally forced the vital breakthrough which our unrelenting pressure had deserved, and the goal, bizarre as it was, ultimately proved enough to win us three vital points, which moved us up four places to ninth, just four places off a play-off place. And while the Barnsley match hadn’t produced the goal fest of the previous game against Plymouth, another treat, similar to that we’d provided for our travelling fans at Home Park, would materialise in our final league game of 1988 - also at Roker - when we thumped another of the promotion hopefuls, Portsmouth, 4-0 to perhaps illustrate that we really meant business.

A perfect send-off then to the old year, Santa had certainly been kind to us points-wise. Things were looking promising - we were about to enter 1989, and the second part of the league campaign was no doubt keenly anticipated, with a second-successive promotion it seemed, quite a distinct possibility