May 1987 saw us behold the-then darkest period in the history of Sunderland AFC, when the club was condemned to the backwaters of Third Division for the very first time in it’s long and proud history, courtesy of defeat from Third Division Gillingham, in the semi-finals of the newly-introduced Second/Third Division play-offs.
Tony Cascarino was to play a starring role in Gillingham’s success, with a hat-trick in the first leg at Priestfield, before he netted two more in the second leg at Roker, to leave us all truly broken-hearted and contemplating the seemingly unthinkable.
Fast-forward then four years and - as if to prove a point of sorts - Cascarino was to come back to haunt us yet again, this time for Aston Villa, in a vital First Division relegation six-pointer at Roker Park.
Villa had ended season 1989/90 as First Division runners-up, but in what had been a case of “after The Lord Mayor’s show”, had endured something of a struggle in 1990/91, their cause not having been helped by a poor away record. 1990/91 had also, of course, seen us struggle to adjust to life back in the top flight, after our rather fortuitous promotion via “the back door” in the summer of 1990 and with time and games starting to run out, it was obvious that we needed to get our act together - soon - if we were to avoid an immediate return “downstairs”.
Thus, our meeting with Aston Villa at Roker near the end of March 1991 was rather a critical affair, as we and Villa were two of several clubs in danger of joining more-or-less-doomed bottom club Derby in the drop to the Second Division.
We were also on something of a “revenge mission”, having lost 0-3 at Villa Park earlier in the campaign, a result which had flattered Villa somewhat; we’d dominated the game for large parts. But back to the game at Roker, and our cause was hampered somewhat by the absence of our ace marksman Marco Gabbiadini, who’d been forced out of the game at Liverpool the previous week early on, with what turned out to be a torn stomach muscle. This meant that we began with a rather inexperienced strike force of Kieran Brady and David Rush, while another rather notable change was the return to central-defence of Richard Ord, in place of the suspended Kevin Ball.
So attacking the Roker End on a rather overcast afternoon, and in front of a crowd of just over 21,000, we began brightly - and while Gary Owers was off-target with an effort from thirty yards, Keiron Brady then proved that he was up to the task of deputizing for Marco, when after being set up by John Cornforth, he the set the home fans buzzing, with a mazy run which took him into the Villa penalty area, but his eventual shot was straight at ‘keeper Nigel Spink.
Offside then checked a Villa raid involving Gordon Cowans, Derek Mountfield and Kent Nielson, before Villa’s ex-Manchester United defender Paul McGrath was unlucky not concede a penalty for handball when David Rush tried to flick the ball over his head. Sunderland then looked like we might take a twentieth-minute lead, when Keiron Brady tried his luck with a speculative effort from just outside the area, only to be denied by an acrobatic one-handed save by Nigel Spink.
John Cornforth then forced a corner off Derek Mountfield which came to nothing, then just short of the half-hour mark, it looked as if we’d forced the vital breakthrough. Paul Hardyman & Colin Pascoe combined well to set up David Rush, who then charged into the penalty area, only to have his effort superbly blocked by Nigel Spink, before the ball was scrambled clear by a somewhat relieved Villa defence.
There was then a moment of danger at the other end, when a cross from Mark Blake almost picked out the unmarked Derek Mountfield at the far post. However, we continued to have the better of the attacking exchanges and after Nigel Spink had saved well from Colin Pascoe, the keeper was then well beaten by a another spectacular long-range effort from Kerion Brady, which unfortunately dropped just the wrong side of the upright.
It seemed only a matter of time then before a goal arrived - and it did in the thirty-sixth minute. Unfortunately, it was for Villa, and completely against the run of play... though it has to be said it was down to some rather poor defending on our part.
A right-wing centre from Gary Penrice caught our defence completely flat-footed, and when the ball reached the unmarked Tony Cascarino, the Republic Of Ireland striker made no mistake, easily beating Tony Norman from close-range, to give his side a lead at the interval percieved by many to be undeserved.
But we started the second-half in positive fashion. After John Cornforth had been denied a crack at goal once he’d worked his way into the Villa area, Colin Pascoe then tried his luck only to shoot wide.
Paul Bracewell then collided with Pascoe, as the former was about to go for goal, then - in the fifty-second minute - disaster struck as Villa went two up, the visitors helping themselves to a substantial slice of luck in the process.
Sunderland failed to clear our lines following a left-wing centre, and when the ball fell to Tony Cascarino, his left-foot effort took a massive deflection off the unfortunate Paul Bracewell, before looping over the helpless Tony Norman into the net.
Mission Impossible, so it seemed.
However, we responded positively and were rewarded with a goal just three minutes later. For following the award of a free-kick on the left wing, Colin Pascoe’s low centre was met at the far post by Peter Davenport, who was on as a substitute for the injured Gordon Armstrong, making no mistake from close-range to hand us a lifeline.
This goal seemed to spark fresh life into us as The Rokerites proceeded to lay siege to the Villa goal - Brady and Davenport in particular causing the most problems. But Villa were by no means out of it, as was emphasized when Tony Norman had to make two smart saves, firstly to deny Gordon Cowans following a mistake by Gary Owers, then to foil England man David Platt, who’d latched onto a long through ball.
We then nearly paid the price for a mix-up on the part of the officials. The referee signalled for a throw-in to ourselves, however the linesman gave it the other way and from the quickly-taken throw the ball was played to David Platt, who broke clear, before squaring the ball to Tony Cascarino, completely unmarked. Cascarino seemed odds-on to complete his hat-trck, but he was denied by a superb close-range block from Tony Norman.
Unfortunately, this proved to be merely a temporary respite, for fourteen minutes from time, Villa more or less sealed the three points, though it was down to more defensive disarray on our part. Tony Norman failed to collect an “up-and-under” centre from Tony Cascarino, and when the ball eventually broke loose to Gordon Cowans, the County Durham-born midfielder’s delivery was turned home from close range by David Platt, for what was the England man’s twentieth goal of the season.
How ironic that it should have come against Sunderland - in such an important game!
It could have been worse not long afterwards, following a rather swift Villa attack. But fortunately for us, Tony Cascarino, instead of bringing in David Platt, who was in the clear, tried to go it alone and was foiled by Paul Hardyman.
To our credit, we kept on battling. When Nigel Spink failed to clear a rather teasing cross from Paul Hardyman, the ball broke to David Rush, who sent in a low drive across the face of goal, which just eluded Peter Davenport when only a touch was needed to turn the ball home. Villa then nearly made it 4-1, when a curling effort from Gary Penrice beat Tony Norman only to travel just wide of the far post; it ended 3-1 in the visitors favour, only their second away league success of the season, also (of course) giving them “the double” over us.
It was a game we could ill-afforded to have lost but, in all fairness, we’d contributed to our own downfall, for all three of Villa’s goals were down to defensive sloppiness on part and this rather costly defeat now left us six points from safety, with just eight games of 1990-91 left to play.
“The Cascarino curse” had come back to haunt us, and indeed, it was to have similar consequences to four years previous. For while Villa eventually survived, we of course returned to the Second Division after just one season, albeit just three points from safety and from third-bottom Luton, who’d once more escaped by the skin of their teeth.
Who knows then what may have happened had we actually managed to beat Villa, subsequently halting the Tony Cascarino’s goalscoring feat at Roker which helped contribute to another relegation. Who says that “lighting doesn’t strike twice?”