April 1992 was a time of contrasting feelings on Wearside, for at the beginning of the month victory in the FA Cup semi-final against Norwich at Hillsborough had earned us a Wembley date with Liverpool, our first FA Cup Final appearance since that momentous day in 1973.
However, in rather stark contrast to this our league form, which had been inconsistent to say the least, was cause for concern after we’d struggled to live up to our tag as pre-season promotion favourites, following relegation from the First Division at the end of the previous season.
In fact, relegation to the Third Division was now a very real prospect, for after a 0-2 defeat at Grimsby on Easter Saturday, we stood sixth from bottom in the Second Division, just one point off the bottom three, though we did have games in hand over some of our fellow strugglers.
But our next fixture couldn’t haven’t been more demanding; a home “derby” clash with high-flying Middlesbrough. The Boro were placed in third spot prior to their visit to Roker, with a return to the First Division (or what was soon to become The Premier League, due to the imminent re-structuring of The Football League) very much on their minds. And our Teesside rivals, having won the season’s previous meeting by 2-1 at Ayresome Park, a game which saw the dismissals of Paul Hardyman and John Hendrie, now appeared on current form at least, favourites to complete “a double” over us.
However, as is often the case in “derby” clashes, the underdog can rise to the occasion, and this is exactly what happened, and as it turned out, a certain ex-Boro player would play a rather significant part in helping us to obtain a vital result.
Our side showed one or two changes to that beaten at Blundell Park two days earlier, as caretaker boss Malcolm Crosby sought a return to winning ways, in a bid to pull clear of the danger zone. Gary Owers replaced Paul Hardyman in defence, Hardyman dropping to the bench along with David Rush, who was replaced by Ian Sampson, while Warren Hawke came in for his first game of the season, at the expense of John Byrne. So in front of an all-ticket Easter Monday Roker crowd of just over 25,000, we kicked-off attacking the Roker End, where Middlesbrough’s travelling fans were assembled.
However, it was Lennie Lawrence’s side, which included former Roker midfielder Mark Proctor, who began the sharper, and they subjected us to a fair degree of pressure in the opening stages, but without really seriously testing our defence/keeper Tony Norman. But having successfully withstood this spell of Boro dominance, we then forced the vital breakthrough in the twenty-first minute, with our first attack of note. A fine forward pass from Ian Sampson picked our ex-Boro forward Peter Davenport just outside the Boro area, and he controlled the ball well, before beating keeper Stephen Pears with an angled shot, much to the delight of the home support.
Boosted by this vital strike, we continued to press, and Stephen Pears had to race out of his area to prevent Gordon Armstrong reaching a pass from Gary Owers, then Warren Hawke was prevented from going on what appeared a promising run by a timely intervention by Willie Falconer. But it was Middlesbrough who finished the half the strongest, and Tony Norman was forced to make a vital block from Jon Gittens, as The Teessiders stepped up their game in the search for an equaliser, though we managed to reach the half-time break still a goal to the good.
However, Boro were soon back on the offensive after the interval, and Jon Gittens was not too far away from levelling his side, up, after he’d surged rather menacingly into our area. Then when played switched to the other end, Gary Owers tested Stephen Pears with a couple of long-range efforts. But Boro, going all-out for an equalizer, then caused us one or two anxious moments, and Gary Owers rather bravely blocked a fierce effort from Andy Peake, before Tony Norman excelled himself in keeping out a header from Stuart Ripley, after the latter had been set up by a cross from John Hendrie.
But we were far from finished as an attacking force, and the Boro goal had quite an amazing escape after seventy-one minutes. A wayward backpass from Nicky Mohan was intercepted by Peter Davenport, and his centre then struck Mohan, and only a great reflex save from Stephen Pears prevented an own-goal. Then Anton Rogan passed up a great chance to give us a bit of “daylight”, when he broke out of defence, and bore down on the Boro goal. But instead of laying the ball off to Peter Davenport, who was better placed, Rogan chose to go it alone, but unfortunately sent his effort just wide of the target.
This missed opportunity may well have proved to have been rather costly, for just two minutes from time, and with Boro going all-out for an equalizer, Jon Gittens powered in a header which had “goal” written all over it. But Tony Norman once again proved his value to us, when he pulled off a tremendous match-winning save, palming the ball away one-handed.
This proved to be the last real attack of note during the game, as one or two further Boro raids proved fruitless, and the full-time whistle was the signal for much joy amongst the home support. It had been a rather typical “derby” clash, hard-fought, with perhaps not surprisingly, only one goal the difference in the end. But fortunately that goal had come in our favour, as we not only avenged our earlier defeat at Boro’s hands, but more importantly picked up three vital safety points.
And helped by results elsewhere, including The Mags 1-4 hammering at Derby (which actually put them into the bottom three), this priceless and timely win lifted us up one place, three points off the drop zone. It also put us in fine fettle for a crucial relegation clash at bottom club Brighton five days hence, but a 2-2 draw at The Goldstone meant that we remained just three points from the drop zone, and with a bit more work to do in order to secure Second Division safety.
However, another draw, this time 0-0 in a re-arranged home clash with Swindon two days after the Brighton fixture, finally put the issue “to bed” as it were, as we achieved safety with two games to spare. So even though we’d left things a bit late, we’d once again risen to the challenge when it mattered most, particularly in the game against Middlesbrough, and could now maybe relax a little and look forward to our Wembley date.