After a season of consolidation back in Barclays League Division Two, hopes were high for a push for promotion during the 1989-90 season. Although an 11th place finish was a respectable return to the second tier, there was an air of expectation around Roker Park for the club to return to Division One as quickly as possible.
With that in mind, the 89-90 season started off well and on Saturday 25th November 1989, Sunderland sat fourth in Division Two after a 2-1 victory over Barry Lloyd’s Brighton and Hove Albion at the Goldstone Ground. Things appeared to be going to plan.
Away from the pressures of the League campaign, Denis Smith had quietly led Sunderland within one victory of the League Cup quarter-final – only Terry Cooper’s Exeter City from Division Four stood in our way.
Sunderland began the Littlewoods Cup adventure in round two with a 4-1 win on aggregate over Ray Lewington’s Third Division Fulham. After a 1-1 draw at Roker Park, Smith’s side took control of the tie with convincing 3-0 win at Craven Cottage, helped by a brace from Gabbiadini.
In round three, Harry Redknapp’s Second Division AFC Bournemouth forced a replay after another 1-1 draw at Roker Park, before Sunderland won with the only goal of the game at Dean Court, predictably scored by Marco Gabbiadini.
These four games set up the fourth round tie at Exeter City scheduled four days after the victory on the south coast at Brighton. And although Exeter City were only two points off the top of Division Four, Sunderland travelled to the south coast confident of making the quarter-final.
Exeter, however, had clearly not read the script. They took the lead after 17 minutes through Darren Rowbotham, and then appeared to put the tie out of reach with a second from Steve Neville with 15 minutes remaining. At this point it must have been looking like a long journey home for the few hardy souls that made the long trip to Devon.
Two minutes later though, Gordon Armstrong pulled Sunderland back into the tie to make it 2-1 before Eric Gates equalised with seven minutes on the clock. After the game finished 2-2 and Sunderland managed to force a replay, Denis Smith was clearly a relieved man that Sunderland were still in the competition.
We got out of jail tonight!
His words, coming immediately after the final whistle, were somewhat prophetic, as it turned into a long night for the players and management of the club.
As the players let their hair down after the game, experiencing what Exeter had to offer late on a Wednesday evening in November, an incident occurred on the city’s quayside that resulted in four players being arrested by Devon and Cornwall police.
Police said two cars were allegedly seen being damaged in a car park shortly before four men left the area by taxi at 2.45am. In their wake, the roof of a Vauxhall Chevette and a radio aerial of a Mini Metro were alleged to have been damaged.
Gordon Armstrong and Tim Carter were released without charge, but Supt John Lilly added that John Kay and Paul Williams would be receiving summonses through the post to appear before the court at a date to be arranged, as well as throwing in the odd joke or two into the announcement.
After watching last night’s game, it’s a shame we can’t charge Sunderland players with robbery!
Back at Roker Park for the replay the following Tuesday, Tim Carter, Gordon Armstrong and John Kay were all in the side as Sunderland comfortably breezed past Exeter City with a 5-2 win, where Armstrong scored Sunderland’s second.
This victory setup a quarter-final tie with Division One side Coventry City and a certain David Speedie... but that’s a story for another day.
Exeter City: Walter, Hiley, Harrower, McNichol, Taylor, Whitehead, Rowbotham, Bailey, Batty, Neville, Benjamin Substitutes Not Used: Frankland, Cooper
Sunderland: Carter, Agboola, Bennett, Ord, Hardyman, Owers (Hauser), Atkinson, Armstrong, Pascoe, Gates, Gabbiadini Substitute Not Used: Kay