After we’d successfully consolidated our status in the Second Division following the conclusion of our “comeback” season of 1988/89, we were many people’s tip to make it back to the First Division by the end of the next campaign.
However, The Second Division of 1989/90 would turn out to be a rather ferociously contested affair - certainly as far as the promotion issue was concerned. The likes of our friends up the road, Leeds, West Ham, Sheffield United and Wolves - to name but five other clubs - had their sights set on the top flight just like us. This made for a no-holds-barred promotion battle, one which would ultimately ‘go to the wire’.
As for ourselves, we were among the front-runners for most part and a formidable unbeaten run of seven league games during November and December had propelled us up to third spot; we were looking good bet for automatic promotion - a play-off place at the very least!
But then followed a barren spell; we endured a sickening seven league games without a win (including an inglorious FA Cup third round defeat at Reading and a heavy defeat in a League Cup quarter-final replay at Coventry, just to compound matters) which surely sowed the seeds of doubt in more than a few fans’ minds.
However, slowly but surely things then began to pick up. Back-to-back wins against fellow challengers West Ham at Roker, then at Bradford towards the end of March, seemed to get us moving, and our first engagement of the month couldn’t have been more challenging: another trip to Yorkshire, this time to Bramall Lane, for a crucial promotion six-pointer against second-placed Sheffield United
It was a fixture which had been re-arranged from the previous month, due to The Blades FA Cup involvement. Tricky though the game may have appeared however, its eventual outcome would provide a great boost to our own promotion ambitions.
Our side showed one change to that which had won at Valley Parade the previous weekend, Mick Heathcote replacing the injured Gary Bennett at the back.
To say that Sunderland stumbled out of the blocks would be an understatement, as were dealt a serious blow after just forty-four seconds when United grabbed the lead. Gary Owers failed to clear a centre from Ian Bryson, which presented Brian Deane with the opportunity to claim his twentieth goal of the season and - at the same time - make amends having conceded a first-minute own goal in the season’s previous meeting at Roker!
It could have got significantly worse shortly afterwards, when ex-Roker striker Billy Whitehurst passed up what appeared to be an easy chance to extend his side’s lead. But gradually we began to engrave a foothold into the game; Marco Gabbiadini and Owers both came close to leveling matters up, as the contest began to develop into a fascinating end-to-end exchange rather than the one-sided affair we were witnessing previously.
However, it was Dave Bassett’s side who continued to look the more menacing up front, a point emphasised when Tony Norman excelled himself to turn a powerful, twenty-five yard effort from John Gannon over the bar. Yet despite the Blades frequently brandishing and waving their cutting edge, the half-time break arrived with the home side still only a goal to the good. There remained everything to play for in the second period.
Upon resumption, both sides continued where they left off in the first-half. Gary Owers came close to an equalizer, before a surging run by United centre-half Paul Stancliffe looked at one stage like spelling danger, but then - in the forty-eighth minute - we drew level!
The move started when Marco Gabbiadini and Colin Pascoe neatly exchanged passes, though when Marco headed for goal, his initial effort was blocked by United keeper Simon Tracey. However, the ball broke rather nicely for Paul Bracewell, whose well-measured, twenty-five yard volley found the back of The Blades net, much to the delight of the travelling contingent. Game on.
Clearly stung by this setback, the home side responded in determined fashion and subjected us to another sustained period of pressure, as they sought to regain the advantage.
A Simon Webster effort struck the upright, before Norman produced a great save from a Whitehurst drive that looked destined for the bottom corner were it not for the stopper’s intervention. Simon Webster then again struck the woodwork, this time with a thunderous header, before Norman pulled off another fantastic stop, this time to deny Brian Deane his second goal of the game, as home side appeared to throw everything at us without compromise.
Yet we remained far from placid on the offensive and once we had braved United’s fierce onslaught, we then looked certain to grab the lead. Simon Tracey was forced into a wonderful double save to deny Marco Gabbiadini, though in the sixty-sixth minute - and admittedly against the overall run of play - we stunned the home support again by snatching the lead.
It all stemmed from an error by United defender Mark Todd, whose intended back-pass to Simon Tracey was intercepted by Marco Gabbiadini and while our goalscorer-in-chief’s first effort was blocked by the United keeper, Marco was able to force home the rebound, once again to the delight of the Sunderland fans congregated behind the United goal.
United then brought on Tony Agana for Brian Deane, now desperately seeking a way back into the game. Capitalising on their momentum, Sunderland we now looked the more dangerous of the two sides up front, inspired in no small way by Kieron Brady, who showed the sort of neat touches and mazy runs which had endeared him to our support in recent games.
The youngster looked like he might then seal the win for us, but his effort was well saved by Simon Tracey. However, five minutes from time, Brady helped set up the goal which put the issue beyond doubt. After having gone on a brilliant run which took him past three defenders, his shot-turned-centre was turned in at the far post by Marco Gabbiadini, for what was his twenty-third goal of the season. Job done!
Needless to say, the full-time whistle sparked scenes of jubilation within the travelling Rokerites amid the crowd of 20,558, who’d seen their side chalk up a vital win and crucially earning the three crucial points that moved us up to fifth in the Second Division table.
Come the end of the season, Sheffield United would go up as runners-up to Champions Leeds, while we would eventually accompany both clubs aloft.
The strength of our away record in the league during the remainder of 1989/90 (which saw further wins at Oxford, Wolves and Port Vale) meant we qualified for the play-offs; a two-legged semi-final against The Mags beckoned. Due mainly to what would become that never-to-be-forgotten night at Sid James, we booked a place in the final as we took on Swindon.
Could we then complete the job? Well sadly, we in effect fail to ‘turn up’ on the big day, but fate then took a hand, when Swindon forfeited their First Division place due to financial misdemenours and, as such, we began the first full season of the new decade, just as we’d began the first full season of the previous decade: back in the First Division.
That night at Bramall Lane in early April 1990, -and indeed 1989/90 as a whole - had been quite memorable indeed.