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Way Back When: The tumultuous 1990/91 season - Sunderland battle, but ultimately it’s in vain

David Holloway remembers one of his most favourite seasons as a Sunderland supporter, the 1990/91 campaign which saw Denis Smith’s young side battle hard in an attempt to stave off relegation.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Coventry City v Sunderland - Highfield Road Photo by Dave Munden - PA Images via Getty Images

The fortunate and unexpected windfall of promotion in the brilliant summer of 1990 was a great opportunity which was ultimately wasted. By 1990 Sunderland were recovering from the disastrous McMenemy years - the relegation to the third tier - and there was a huge strain on club finances and on fan loyalty.

Denis Smith had built a fine young side, with a core of players who the fans could easily identify with. Local lads like John Kay, Gary Owers, Richard Ord and Gordon Armstrong were regulars. Gary Bennett was at his peak - Eric Gates was enjoying his football, and Marco Gabbiadini was a real hero - a player of excitement the like of which we hadn’t seen since the 1973 cup final team.

The 1980’s boardroom battles had ended with Bob Murray gaining full control - we were on our way back, perhaps a little early, but we were back in the top league.

Italia 90 changed football. It made football popular again after the years of decline, and that still pre-premier league popularity was something that we should have built on.

A huge opportunity which was gifted was a cause for excitement on Wearside in that summer - 1990 was the summer of Gazza; the soundtrack was The Happy Mondays – it was the summer which saw the arrival on Wearside of the legend which was Kevin Ball.

Kevin Ball

The manner of our promotion was such that transfer business was limited. Funds were still rationed by the frugal Bob Murray, and it is doubtful that Denis Smith had files full of statistics on potential targets. It was clear however that replacements were needed for the ageing John MacPhail and Eric Gates.

So in came Ball and Peter Davenport - would that be enough?

The season started with a defeat in the sun away to Norwich, despite a Gabbiadini cracker. John MacPhail made his final appearance for Sunderland - his first in the top flight in what was a long career. What a player he had been for the lads. Have we ever spent a better fifteen grand? I doubt it.

Then came two belting home games, Spurs with World Cup heroes Lineker and Gascoigne, and on the Saturday we took on Manchester United. Two huge occasions. The midweek game against Spurs saw fans form queues around the ground - there was plenty of abuse for Gazza, which he thrived on and enjoyed - and Sunderland nabbed a good point against a top side. It is easy to forget that Lineker and Gascoigne at that time were huge stars in World football.

The Saturday against United was a cracker. A Gary Owers header at the Fulwell End saw us go one up at half time, before Brian McClair equalised. Then, as we seemed to be heading for a draw, a brilliant Gary Bennett goal gave us a first win in the First Division in five years. Pandemonium at Roker. These were great days.

We then had some inconsistent results in the league, before thumping Bristol City 6 - 1 away from home - my lift back to London with my Bristol City supporting mate was a touch uncomfortable.

There was then a pattern of defeats and draws with the odd win - at Sheffield United and at home to Luton. We were just about holding our own, just above the bottom three. Gabbiadini was proving his top flight quality, Bally had settled and Bracewell, Armstrong and Owers battled hard. Quality and depth were lacking, however.

Soccer - Endsleigh League Division One - Notts County v Sunderland - Meadow Lane Photo by Phil O’Brien/EMPICS via Getty Images

By Christmas, we were in the bottom three, and Gabbiadini was fatigued and injured - adequate backup just wasn’t there. The young team, the core of which had got us promoted from the third tier, continued to compete and were rarely outclassed. Brian Mooney arrived but it wasn’t enough – he wasn’t anything at all really, and were stuck in the bottom three.

New year wins against Southampton, Chelsea and Forest got us to 16th - we had hope, but every point gained sapped the energy of the tiny squad.

Easter saw a defeat to Aston Villa, with David Platt and our nemesis Tony Cascarino scoring, but a win against Palace when our front two were David Rush and Kieron Brady restored hope. More defeats followed, and then there was a win against Luton with a clearly half fit Marco returning and scoring in a ground with a ban on away fans - the celebrations when Pascoe scored the winner proved that this ban was in vain.

Two games to go and we still had a chance.

A rare televised home game against Arsenal was a must win. Arsenal were the current champions and a tough team. Jimmy Greaves was the co-commentator and he sat on the gantry on top of the clock stand moaning about the wind, waxing lyrical about fish and chips.

A great save by David Seaman from Gary Owers deprived us of a win, and we were off to Man City for the last match of the season - a match we had to win to have a chance of survival. Maine Road was one of the great old grounds. Ten thousand or more Sunderland fans packed in in party mood. Man City had Niall Quinn up front and Peter Reid as manager - they were a good side. The game ebbed and flowed, but Quinn and Reid broke our hearts as we lost dramatically 3-2 and went down.

Ultimately, it was a struggle of a season and an opportunity lost. But that team were heroes to a man. Each one gave everything they had and more - but it wasn’t quite enough. We lost in Manchester - the city which provided the soundtrack to the time - and we wouldn’t make it back to the big time until Reid and Quinn arrived in Sunderland five years later.

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