The 1991-92 season was one of contrasting fortunes for Sunderland.
Following relegation at the end of the 1990-91 campaign we’d been installed as one of the pre-season Second Division promotion favourites, along with North East rivals Middlesbrough and Newcastle, and one or two other clubs. However, our Second Division campaign in 1991-92 took on rather nightmarish proportions, when generally poor league form meant that a second spell in the third tier was a real possibility.
This was all in contrast to our fortunes in the FA Cup, though even after a comfortable 3-0 win v Port Vale in a third round tie at Roker I don’t think that even the most optimistic of us could have envisaged how far we’d progress in 1991-92.
Having subsequently seen off Oxford and West Ham (albeit it after replays) in the fourth and fifth rounds respectively, in the quarter-finals we were drawn away against Chelsea, who were at the time managed by our 1973 Wembley hero Ian Porterfield and riding high in the First Division. A tough draw indeed, and I personally felt that it signalled the end of our FA Cup interest for one more season at least.
We upset the odds somewhat by securing a 1-1 draw at The Bridge thanks to a John Byrne goal, to thus force a replay at Roker. Cup fever then it seemed had definitely gripped Wearside, and on Wednesday, 18th March 1992, just over 26,000 were present at Roker to see if we could reach the FA Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1973 - and most of them were not to be disappointed.
Our side showed one change to that which had done so well to secure a draw in the first meeting, when Kevin Ball came in for Gary Bennett. Attacking the Fulwell End in the first-half we began brightly, and it looked as if we’d taken a fourteenth-minute lead when Gordon Armstrong netted - but unfortunately the Tynesider was judged to have been in an offside position, rather harshly I felt, and so his effort was chalked off.
But undeterred we continued to press, and were rewarded in the twentieth minute with a goal which DID count. David Rush battled well to gain possession and set John Byrne away, and when Byrne’s low drive was only parried by Chelsea’s ex-Newcastle keeper Dave Beasant, Peter Davenport was on hand to gleefully slot home the loose ball. Cue delirium amongst the home fans.
Davenport then shot over, but from that point, Chelsea started to gradually turn the tables - a point emphasised when Tony Norman was twice forced to make crucial saves to deny both Kerry Dixon and Tony Cascarino, then just before the break we had a big let-off, when Dixon rather inexplicably failed to convert a centre from Dennis Wise right in front of goal.
The Chelsea onslaught then continued into the second-period and Richard Ord, on as a substitute for the injured Paul Hardyman, did well to foil Graeme Le Saux, who’d worked himself into a threatening position. Tony Norman then once again denied Kerry Dixon, before he pulled off an incredible stop which stop which was surely in “the Montgomery class” when he kept out a point-blank range header from Dennis Wise. From the resulting corner, Andy Townsend sent in a fierce, low drive, which was kept out just short of the line by Paul Bracewell.
However, Chelsea’s more or less unrelenting search for an equalizer left them at times vulnerable at the back, and after Peter Davenport had had an effort blocked by Dave Beasant, the former Middlesbrough man was unlucky not to increase our lead just after the hour mark.
For in a move similar to that which led to our opening goal, Brian Atkinson stormed into the Chelsea area and when his shot was pushed aside by Beasant, Peter Davenport was again first to react.
Unfortunately however, Paul Elliott was on hand to make a brilliant goalline clearance, just when the home crowd were about to start celebrating a second goal.
We thought we had increased our lead again, this time twenty minutes from time, when John Byrne comprehensively beat Dave Beasant after he’d been neatly set up by Peter Davenport, only to have effort disallowed for an infringement. Chelsea then proved that they were far from finished, when following a Dennis Wise corner, Andy Townsend fired in another powerful effort which seemed goal-bound, before Paul Bracewell again came to the rescue with another dramatic but equally stunning goalline clearance.
Tony Cascarino then struck the crossbar as the visitors increased the pressure in their bid to retrieve the tie, then John Byrne passed up a great chance to make the game safe when he chose to go it alone, in spite of having Paul Bracewell up in support, and he lost out to the Chelsea defence.
This squandered opportunity appeared to prove rather costly when Chelsea equalized with just five minutes to go. Tony Cascarino won a ball in air and headed down to Vinnie Jones, who played a neat ball forward to find Dennis Wise, who slotted the ball past Tony Norman for a deserved equalizer.
It looked then as if our Wembley dreams were over for at least more season - but then just two minutes from time, the majority of Roker Park erupted again. A right-wing corner from Brian Atkinson was met by Gordon Armstrong, who headed home powerfully to win the game with time almost up.
Chelsea were undoubtedly gutted and were unable to respond meaningfully in the little time that remained, and the full-time whistle not surprisingly signalled scenes of utter joy amongst the home faithful.
In all fairness we’d been the better side over the two games, and now it was off to Hillsborough in just over two weeks time for face Norwich in the semi-finals.
It had indeed been a great night at Roker, one surely reminiscent of the 1973 FA Cup run.
Though while we overcame Norwich, there was to be no ‘1973 the sequel’ as Liverpool at Wembley proved to be a bit of a bridge too far, but there's no doubt that our side - which had struggled in the league in 1991-92 and had narrowly avoided the drop to Division Three - had done us all proud with their FA Cup exploits.
How long then before we get to experience “The Wembley feeling” again?