The second half of 1987-88, our first ever Third Division campaign, was in effect one of contrasting periods.
January had seen us achieve a 100% record, which perhaps unsurprisingly earned manager Denis Smith the divisional manager of the month award. However, in February and March, we hit a bit of a rocky patch; we recorded just two league wins during this period, though due to our overall form, we still held second place.
Then, as the defining month of April commenced, we seemed to hit top gear once again: three successive wins over Grimsby, Chesterfield and Southend made Second Division football in 1988-89 appear all the more likely, now that we were looking sharp during the business end of these matters.
However, we were then brought back down to earth slightly.
Bristol City, who still had a chance of making the play-offs, pulled off a rather shock 1-0 win at Roker in our next game, to thus avenge their earlier home defeat at our hands.
This setback also served as a rather ominous notice that the Third Division promotion race was far from over - our own task was not the formality it may have appeared to be. Thankfully, the Bristol City reverse, that would eventually prove to be only our second in the league at Roker in 1987-88, turned out to be merely a hiccup. The next game, against Mansfield at Field Mill, saw us promptly return to winning ways in rather emphatic style - crucially making an instant return to The Second Division that little bit more likely.
This away league fixture had originally been scheduled to have taken place in January, but the heavy fall of snow at the time had meant that it was one of the several matchday casualties typically seen in the lower leagues when the weather becomes harsh
The fortunes of ourselves and our hosts were now somewhat contrasting. While we needed a win to boost our promotion bid, ‘The Stags’ were equally needy of the three points in order to stave off the threat of relegation to The Fourth Division; the game was therefore sure to be keenly-contested.
Sunderland showed two changes to that beaten by Bristol City three days earlier. Iain Hesford resumed in goal in place of Tim Carter, while Gary Bennett replaced Richard Ord in defence.
Backed by a healthy following from a crowd just shy of 7,000, we began brightly and were given the ideal start after just eight minutes - though we needed a helping hand from the home side!
Stags captain George Foster and teammate Mike Graham got themselves into a mix-up just inside their own half, allowing Marco Gabbiadini to capitalize quickly, latching onto the loose ball, drawing keeper Eric Steele from his goal and subsequently setting up his strike partner - Eric Gates - who gleefully netted only his eighteenth goal of the season.
Iain Hesford then had to be alert to cut out a dangerous-looking centre from Steve Charles as Mansfield tried to respond, but normal service was soon resumed and we nearly doubled our lead. Following a neat move involving Steve Doyle and Paul Lemon, the latter’s cross picked out Eric Gates, who looked on course to grab his second of the night, before his effort was blocked on the line by Simon Coleman, though Mansfield player seemingly knew very little about it!
Marco Gabbiadini was then foiled by Eric Steele and, while the home side rallied briefly, we deservedly extended our lead in the thirty-fifth minute from an incisive bit of play instigated by Colin Pascoe. He released Marco Gabbiadini with a neat pass, leaving Marco to race clear before coolly lobbing Eric Steele, to thus notch what was only his twenty-second goal of the season. The floodgates had now seemingly opened.
Mansfield, however, refused to roll over and die, nearly halving their deficit just before the break. Hesford and John McPhail got themselves into a tangle and this presented Kevin Kent with an open goal, but thankfully John Kay was on hand to clear the danger, as we went in at half-time two goals to the good. Things looked promising so far.
We continued in the second period from where we’d left off in the first, with Marco Gabbiadini at the centre of most of our attacking moves and, as such, he proceeded to give the Mansfield rearguard quite an uneasy time. He had an effort well saved by the rather agile Steele, who also foiled Frank Gray, while Pascoe had an effort deflected behind, after he’d been set up by Gates.
But our more-or-less non-stop pressure surely had to pay dividends, and it duly did, fourteen minutes from time.
A long clearance downfield by Hesford picked out Gordon Armstrong. Despite indignant offside appeals on the part of Mansfield, the youngster went on to set up Colin Pascoe for a simple tap-in, much to the delight of the travelling hoards behind the goal.
Hesford then had to save bravely at the feet of Ian Stringfellow, as the home side battled - now somewhat in vain - to try and get back into the game. But then, two minutes from time, we capped a rather splendid performance with a fourth goal. A free-kick from John McPhail found Gates in acres of space, the forward duly accepting the chance to find the net, once again to the delight of our travelling faithful. Mansfield then threatened again briefly, but Hesford was as equal to a David Hodges effort as he had been all evening. Nothing was going to take the shine off a fine night’s work.
4-0 it ended then, our best away league success of 1987-88 to date, while the win also gave us ‘the double’ over Mansfield, whom we’d beaten 4-1 at Roker earlier in the season. Interesting also, that Mansfield keeper Eric Steele had also conceded seven when playing for Southend at Roker Park earlier in the season, which thus made a rather unwelcome aggregate of eleven conceded against ourselves in 1987-88!
Trivia aside, the important thing was that the three points moved us sixth points clear at the top of The Third division. With such a formidable goal difference supplementing our points tally, we now needed just one more win from our final three games to ensure an immediate return to The Second Division.
This coveted victory would arrive four days hence, on another trip to The Midlands, rather appropriately in manager Denis Smith’s native Potteries - Port Vale to be more precise. This set the scene nicely for our promotion party in our final home game of 1987-88 verses Northampton. Happy days indeed...