Our First Division comeback season of 1990-91 had perhaps not too surprisingly proved to be one of struggle to try to stay afloat, and as the campaign neared it’s business end we found ourselves battling it out with several other clubs to avoid the drop to the Second Division. So much so that come the end of February, we found ourselves kept out of the relegation zone purely on goal difference, as we were locked on the same number of points as three other clubs, namely Coventry, QPR and Sheffield United.
Our opening fixture for March was quite a critical affair, a visit to bottom club Derby, who were stuck in a run of terrible form, having not tasted victory rather ironically since their 2-1 win at Roker in early December. So revenge then was very much in mind, as we sought three important points, and our side showed one change to that held 0-0 at one of our other fellow strugglers, Coventry, the previous week, when Paul Hardyman returned at left-back after a two-match ban, in place of Anthony Smith.
However, Hardyman’s part in the game would prove to be somewhat short-lived, for following a clash with Derby’s Sunderland-born forward Mick Harford early on in the game, he ended up laid out cold. Harford ended up in the referee’s book, while Hardyman was eventually stretchered off, and replaced by Richard Ord.
The first attack of note came from Derby, when Gary Micklewhite played in Dean Saunders, who forced a corner. This was taken by Micklewhite, but cleared by the combined efforts of Paul Bracewell and Gary Owers. Then in our first real offensive, a neat pass from Gordon Armstrong found Marco Gabbiadini, whose header was superbly turned onto the post by Derby’s England keeper Peter Shilton. But this save was rendered academic when play was pulled back, after the referee ruled that Armstrong had been guilty of a foul in the build-up.
But then in the twelfth minute, we forced a vital breakthrough with a well-worked goal, with the move being started and finished by Gordon Armstrong. The Tynesider won the ball from Michael Forsyth with a strong challenge, and brought in Peter Davenport. Davenport then held the ball up before playing a neat return ball to Armstrong, who went on to beat Peter Shilton with a firm drive into the bottom left-hand corner, much to the delight of the travelling contingent behind the goal.
Boosted by this goal, we continued to press, and just after the quarter-hour mark, we edged further ahead. A deep centre from Gary Owers was headed out by Mel Sage, but only as far as Paul Bracewell, who found Kevin Ball. And Ball’s centre to the far post was met by Marco Gabbiadini, who netted our second of the afternoon with a diving header.
Derby then responded, and Gary Owers and Paul Bracewell both had to be alert, when Ted McMinn threatened. But we were soon back on the offensive, and after Peter Davenport and Brian Mooney had caused The Rams rearguard one or two problems, we rather incredibly added a third goal. There appeared to be no danger when Richard Ord played a free-kick into the Derby area, though Mark Wright, under no pressure, still hurried his clearance, which travelled only as far as Kevin Ball. And Ball wasted no time in thumping a tremendous drive past Peter Shillton, to send our fans wild with delight.
3-0 to us then, and with just twenty-three minutes played! It had been quite an incredible opening period, for having found goals as hard to come by as gold dust in recent weeks, we’d now netted three, with only about a quarter of a game gone, and on an opponents ground. Surely we couldn’t now lose this one?
The one-way traffic continued, as we threatened to take Derby apart, and Mark Wright was forced to rather desperately clear a centre from Peter Davenport, which looked destined to pick out either Marco Gabbiadini or Colin Pascoe. Then following a couple of somewhat rare Derby raids, Kevin Ball and Colin Pascoe were called upon to clear up at the back, though there seemed at this stage little real threat to our seemingly unassailable advantage. Indeed, normal service was soon resumed, and Peter Shilton was forced to collect a Colin Pascoe free-kick under pressure from both Gordon Armstrong and Marco Gabbiadini. Gabbiadini then continued to cause further problems for the Derby defence, and it seemed only a matter of time before another goal arrived.
But when it did, in the thirty-seventh minute, it came for Derby, and rather against the run of play. Gary Micklewhite split our defence with a neat ball to find Dean Saunders, and in spite of rather vain offside appeals on our part, Saunders was allowed to go on and beat Tony Norman to reduce the deficit.
This goal seemed to breathe new life in Derby, and after a sustained attack from the home side, offside against Dean Saunders brought relief. But The Rams were soon back, and Paul Bracewell and Gary Owers had to get in important tackles to help relieve further pressure, while the latter was also forced to clear a dangerous free-kick from Dean Saunders. But the second goal which Derby had been threatening, arrived just before the interval. A deep centre from Ted McMinn picked out Dean Saunders, who worked his way into a shooting position just inside the eighteen-yard area, before beating his Welsh International colleague Tony Norman with a powerful shot into the top left-hand corner, for a half-time score of 2-3.
All of a sudden it was game on.
Derby continued on the offensive after the break, and Tony Norman was twice called into action, firstly to deal with a dangerous centre from Ted McMinn, then to deal with a header from Mick Harford. But we were by no means of out it, and Marco Gabbiadini again gave the home defence one or two anxious moments, before a rather dangerous-looking Derby attack was halted when Ted McMinn slipped when trying to bring a pass from Mark Wright under control.
Gary Bennett and Paul Bracewell then had to be alert to clear as Derby continued to probe for an equalizer, then following a free-kick from Ted McMinn, Mark Wright headed just over the bar, though the flag had already gone up for offside.
Our fans continued in their efforts to urge us on, and after Peter Davenport had set Brian Mooney free, the latter shot across the face of goal, Marco Gabbiadini was caught just offside, when a promising break appeared on. Gary Owers then had to be alert to foil Dean Saunders, before we missed a great chance to give ourselves a bit of breathing space. Gordon Armstrong led a change from the halfway line, and with plenty of options available, he picked out Peter Davenport, who in turn brought in Brian Mooney. But Mooney passed up a real chance, when he stumbled over the ball whilst in the act of shooting.
And this miss was to proved costly, as Derby proceeded to storm up field, and a fine through ball picked out Dean Saunders, who charged down on goal, only to be upended by Tony Norman inside the area, leaving the referee no option but to award a spot-check.
And Saunders himself duly obliged from the spot, to not only complete his hat-trick, but also earn his side what seemed an unlikely point, after they’d appeared dead and buried at one stage.
Gut-wrenching. For after we’d at one stage appeared to have been in more or less total control, we’d let slip a three-goal lead, in a game which really needed to have been won.
And things were to get worse, for in our next three home games, also vital relegation affairs, Sheffield United, Aston Villa & QPR all took maximum points, to leave us facing what appeared to be a seemingly impossible survival task.
We did give ourselves a bit of hope with a surprise 2-1 home win v high-flying Crystal Palace on Easter Saturday, then with victory by the same scoreline in a vital relegation six-pointer at Luton. A point from a hard-earned 0-0 draw with Champions-elect Arsenal in our home game of the season, meant our fate would go to the wire, but a 2-3 defeat in the final game at Manchester City confirmed our somewhat inevitable fate.
And the team we went down with? Rather ironically Derby, who’d long since been doomed to the drop, by the season’s final day. Which left us to rue those dropped points at The Baseball Ground, not to mention in many other games in 1990-91, when we’d held an advantage of one sort or another at one stage, only to have to eventually settle for a share of the spoils, or worse still, end up empty-handed.
Sad maybe, but in all truth, we had no-one to blame but ourselves.