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Way Back When: Sunderland 2-0 Stoke City (1986) - Another last-gasp escape!

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Andrew Cockburn takes our readers back to another last-gasp escape for Sunderland as Lawrie McMenemy’s men struggled to avoid the drop all the way back in 1986.

Lawrie McMenemy

The 1984-85 campaign had at one stage, promised so much. By the end of November, and following a rather epic 3-2 home win v Manchester United, we stood ninth in the First Division, while a promising Milk Cup run was also taking shape.

However, after having accounted for several “giants” in the shape of Chelsea, Nottingham Forest & Spurs, to thus reach Wembley for the first time since that momentous day in 1973, we then seemed overawed by the big occasion. Indeed, Norwich’s win, mainly courtesy of an own goal and a missed penalty on our part, seemed to sum things up rather well.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, this defeat seemed to impact negatively on our league form, culminating in relegation from the First Division, after five uneasy seasons amongst England’s elite, which made it an unwanted double of sorts. Typical Sunderland!

1987 Milk cup Final Photo by Albert Cooper and Monte Fresco/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

In the summer of 1985, spirits were no doubt low on Wearside, certainly as far as our local club was concerned. And matters were compounded just two weeks after the end of the 1984-85 campaign, when we found ourselves managerless after Len Ashurst appeared to pay the price of failure, by being shown the Roker Park exit door.

A few weeks later, though, we appeared to have pulled off a coup, when Lawrie McMenemy was unveiled as our new manager. “Big Mac” had enjoyed a fair amount of success at unfashionable Southampton, having guided them to runners-up spot in the First Division in 1984, as well as an FA Cup winners success, three years after our own triumph at Wembley. It seemed then, that we might just have the right man on board to guide us back to the good times.

Unfortunately, actual practice didn’t seem to match the theory. The club had a truly awful start to the 1985-86 Second Division, when we lost all of our opening five games without even managing a single goal in the process. This seemed to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

Things did improve thereafter, but it was soon clear that any hopes of an immediate return to the First Division were pie-in-the-sky, and come the New Year, we suffered a terrible and indeed rather worrying run of league form. Our first eleven league games of 1986 produced a solitary victory and by Easter a second successive demotion with the chilling prospect of Roker Park staging Third division football for the first time ever, was appearing a real possibility.

Howard Gayle Sunderland footballer Photo by Staff/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

We did however then manage to get our act together, and in spite of three successive home wins, our fate yet again, went to the final day of the season.

The situation at the bottom was that two from five clubs, namely Blackburn, Carlisle, Middlesbrough, Shrewsbury & ourselves, would accompany already-doomed Fulham in the drop to the Third Division.

And to complicate matters further, Carlisle had a game in hand, Shrewsbury and Middlesbrough met in a crucial clash at Gay Meadow, while Blackburn’s final game with Grimsby was actually postponed. So our task was simple, beat Stoke at Roker in our final game, and we’d be 99.9% sure of Second Division football again in 1986-87. And for this vital game, Lawrie McMenemy kept faith with the same side which had beaten Shrewsbury, also at Roker, the previous Tuesday.

So playing towards the Roker End, in front of a crowd of 20,631, our second-highest of the season in the league, we began brightly, and almost got off to the perfect start. A long ball from Alan Kennedy picked out Eric Gates, but unfortunately the ex-Ipswich man failed to get any power behind his shot, and Stoke keeper Peter Fox saved comfortably.

But we were soon back to grab a second-minute lead. Eric Gates burst through on goal, only to be brought down by Stoke player-manager Mick Mills, who of course had previously played under Lawrie McMenemy at Southampton, and also with Gates himself, at Ipswich. And once the Stoke protests had died down, Mark Proctor coolly converted the spot kick, to settle the nerves of both players and fans alike.

Eric Gates Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

We kept up the attacking momentum, and were unlucky not to increase our lead after twenty-six minutes. A Tony Ford centre found Howard Gayle, whose header was superbly turned away for a corner by Peter Fox. And Frank Gray’s flag-kick resulted in Eric Gates having an effort turned behind for a second corner, again taken by Gray, and which picked out Gary Bennett, whose header was cleared off the line by Neil Adams.

Then in a somewhat rare Stoke attack, a Neil Adams centre travelled rather dangerously across the face of goal. And we nearly committed defensive suicide just before the break, when a casual back-pass from Shaun Elliott almost let in Graham Shaw, but fortunately keeper Andy Dibble was able to retrieve the situation, to thus preserve our slender half-time advantage.

Job half-done then, and in a bid to extend our advantage, as well as of course secure our Second Division status, we began the second period strongly. Mark Proctor and Eric Gates combined well to set up a chance for Frank Gray, but he sent his fierce effort straight at Peter Fox. Then when play switched to the other end, there was a moment of danger, when we rather unnecessarily conceded a free-kick. But fortunately for us, Graham Shaw’s kick curled just wide of Andy Dibble’s left-hand post.

Stoke were now beginning to come more into the game, and as such, our defence began to come under increasing pressure. And Phil Heath might well have netted an equalizer, had he made better contact with a right-wing centre. Gary Bennett then did well to dispossess Graham Shaw, before Howard Gayle nearly put his side in trouble with a misplaced pass.

Roker Park

However, in the sixty-eighth minute, and somewhat against the run of play, certainly in the second period, the home crowd were celebrating a second goal. A foul by future Sunderland defender Steve Bould led to a free-kick, which Mark Proctor played short to Frank Gray, who fired home a low, raking drive, to thus give us a bit of breathing space.

This vital second goal seemed to breath fresh life into us, and Alan Kennedy surged forward, only to send his short across the face of goal, before an indirect free-kick, awarded against Mick Mills, led to a corner which came to nothing. But we stayed on the offensive, and a fine ball from Barry Venison found Eric Gates, who was disposed by Chris Hemming at the expense of another corner. And Frank Gray’s inswinger led to a tremendous scramble in front the Stoke goal, with Gary Bennett, Eric Gates & Ian Wallace all failing in their efforts to force the ball home.

Not that it mattered, for the game ended 2-0, and it was a case of mission accomplished, much to the relief of the home crowd. For Shrewsbury’s 2-1 win v Middlesbrough, ensured their own survival and at the same time condemned Boro to the drop, while Carlisle’s 2-3 home defeat v Charlton meant they were now involved in a straight fight with Blackburn, to try and avoid the third relegation position. We’d survived, albeit with not much to spare.

And the after-match scenes were quite incredible, for the home fans demanded that the team and Lawrie McMenemy did a lap of honour. It did seem a bit ironic in a way, for which other club would get that sort of accolade from their fans, what after such a tumultuous season/a narrow escape from a second-successive relegation? Unfortunately, this all merely seemed to delay the somewhat inevitable. For as fate would have it, worse was to come, for if we though the events of 1985-86 had been bad, they would be tea party-like compared to what was to come in 1986-87, perhaps the less said about which the better. It could surely only happen at Sunderland...