Following a tentative (and indeed winless) start to our Second Division ‘comeback season’ of 1988/89, we’d gradually began to find our feet - certainly on home soil, anyway.
Back-to-back wins against Oldham (3-2) and Leeds (2-1) seemed to finally get us up and running; it got better still in the next Roker fixture, when we decimated Swindon by four goals to nil, a scoreline flattering the opposition which we could have perhaps doubled on another day. That victory set us up nicely for our next game and what was perceived to be our sternest test so far: a visit from table-topping Blackburn Rovers.
Don Mackay’s Rovers, having bowed out of play-offs the season prior, had once again been labelled as promotion favourites, and they’d certainly lived up to that tag so far.
They’d suffered just one defeat from their eleven league games to date (0-1 at another of the fancied clubs, Manchester City) and their strong run of form had propelled them to the summit of the Second Division. It was therefore a tough task facing us and perhaps not too surprisingly, manager Denis Smith kept faith in the same side which had overwhelmed Swindon, while Rovers side showed one change to that which held Oxford to a one-all draw in their previous game, Ian Miller coming in for Andy Kennedy.
The Rovers line-up also featured a certain Howard Gayle, but as events turned out, there was to be no happy homecoming for our ex-forward; promotion hopefuls Rovers were to end up empty-handed, as we demonstrated our own credentials.
We began brightly, Marco Gabbiadini almost deceived keeper Terry Gennoe in the first minute, before Simon Garner fluffed a good early chance for the visitors, when he really should have done better with a close-range header. As it transpired, Marco was to prove to be more than Blackburn could handle, as was illustrated in only the fourth minute when he edged us in front. After taking a return pass from Colin Pascoe, our goalscorer-in-chief left Rovers defender John Millar trailing in his wake, before he went on to beat Gennoe with an angled drive.
Gabbiadini showed little sign of letting up after his opener; his sheer pace was causing no end of problems for the visitors rearguard and shortly afterwards he set up a chance for Billy Whitehurst, though the latter’s neat flick landed in the arms of Gennoe.
But we weren’t to be denied next time we asked. Twelve minutes after our first goal, we would double our lead - though we needed an element of good fortune!
Rather ironically, the move began when John McPhail capitalized on a slip by Howard Gayle of all people. McPhail then proceeded to set Billy Whitehurst away down the left and the latter’s low centre struck the rather unsuspecting Colin Hendry, finding its way in via the upright.
Having established a 2-0 lead so early on, the home crowd no doubt now anticipated ‘the floodgates opening’, and we continued to press in a bid to answer the fans’ demand. McPhail had a header well saved by Gennoe, before the somewhat overworked ‘keeper denied Gordon Armstrong, who’d been set up by Colin Pascoe just before the break.
Sunderland were two goals to the good by half-time. The scoreline looked to flatter Blackburn somewhat, such had been the extent of our control of the game so far.
While the visitors did rally briefly in the second period, Iain Hesford (who must have experienced possibly his quietest-ever game for us) was never seriously troubled. We continued to carry most of the attacking threat, nearly extending our lead in the sixty-eighth minute when a Frank Gray corner was touched on by Whitehurst for Pascoe, whose near-post flick struck the upright.
In spite of us creating one or two further chances, there were no further additions to our goal tally; all-in-all, we could look back on a fine night’s work against a side who - like ourselves - were very much fancied to do well in this division.
This splendid win, our fourth in succession at Roker, also moved us up to tenth place in the Second Division - three points from the play-off zone. It also perhaps served notice to the rest of the Second Division that we meant business, a point emphasised further when we gained deserved 1-1 draws at two of the other promotion favourites (Manchester City and Chelsea) shortly afterwards.
Unfortunately however, we were unable to produce these sorts of performances and results on consistent enough basis in 1988/89 to warrant a second successive promotion.
While Chelsea eventually went up as undisputed Champions - with other aforementioned favourite City as runners-up - we had to settle for mid-table consolidation. Perhaps not too bad a feat in our first season out from the abyss we knew as the old Third Division. As fate would have it however, we’d soon be back where most of us believe we truly belonged.