Mention the name Gillingham to anyone with an Sunderland AFC affiliation, and it will no doubt provoke rather unpleasant memories of our first-ever home and away meetings with the Kent club, after they’d written a new but unwanted chapter in our long and proud history. For a rather horrendous 1986-87 campaign culminated in our participation in the newly-introduced Second and Third Division promotion-relegation play-offs, and a meeting in the semi-final with Third Division “Gills”.
They went on to provide us with what was at the time the lowest point and blackest day in our long and proud history; relegation to the Third Division for the first time ever.
However, Gillingham subsequently failed in their attempt to reach the Second Division for the first time in their history when they lost out to Swindon in the final (maybe a bit ironic, what in view of our own failure v the Robins, three years hence). This meant that in season 1987-88, we’d face The Gills not only for the first time at league level, but also of course at third tier level.
An early advantage
The season’s first meeting at Priestfield in mid-September had ended in a 0-0 stalemate, thanks to some sterling work in particular from Iain Hesford and Gary Bennett. And by the time of the return home fixture at the end of January, we sat four points clear at the top, while Gillingham, who’d sacked manager Keith Peacock just after Christmas, following a run of poor form, were on the fringes of the play-off zone.
We thus appeared favourites to take the three points, while at the same time of course, exacting “revenge” for the previous season’s play-off semi-final defeat, and as events turned out, none of us were to be disappointed.
So, playing towards the Roker End in the first-half in front of a crowd of just over 16,000, and with the advantage of a stiff breeze, we began brightly. And John Kay looked to set Marco Gabbiadini away with a long ball, but Gavin Peacock, son of the recently deposed Gillingham manager, and later of course to play for our dear rivals up the road, was able to intercept, and relieve the danger.
But we were soon back, when we won our first corner of the game, though Paul Lemon’s in-swinger was cleared by Colin Greenall. Then in Gillingham’s first genuine attack of the game, Trevor Quow and David Smith combined to set up a chance for Mark Cooper, but thankfully his header was well over.
However, after two further corners came to nothing, we grabbed a ninth-minute lead. A long thrown-in from Gordon Armstrong led to another flag-kick, and another inswinger from Paul Lemon picked out Gary Bennett, who headed home at the near post.
Gillingham then tried to respond to this setback with a couple of promising moves, though they lacked any real penetration. For it was Sunderland who carried the more potent attacking threat at this stage of proceedings, as was perhaps exemplified when Gills keeper Ron Hillyard had to react smartly to beat Marco Gabbiadini to a through ball from Gordon Armstrong.
Iain Hesford then had no trouble in gathering a close-range header from Steve Lovell, then Howard Pritchard fired harmlessly wide from eighteen yards, as the visitors attacks continued to lack any real threat. Indeed, it was left to us to show how it should be done, when we edged further in front after twenty-seven minutes, and it was all down to the persistence of Steve Doyle. The ex-Huddersfield man pressurised Trevor Quow, who was attempting to clear the ball, and Doyle eventually gained possession before brining in Marco Gabbiadini, who went on to neatly slip the ball home, in spite of the attempts of a Gillingham defender to clear.
This stung Gillingham into further offensive action, and Iain Hesford was forced to make a fine diving save from David Smith at the expense of a corner, which again came to nothing. We then suffered a blow, when Marco Gabbiadini had to leave the field injured, and his place was taken by Keith Bertschin.
Just before half-time, we nearly extended our lead. A long kick from Iain Hesford was headed clear by Colin Greenall under pressure from Keith Bertschin, though only as far as Paul Lemon, who sent in a powerful, thirty-yard effort, which was only a fraction too high.
A nervy second half
2-0 at the break then, so far, so good, and we began the second period positively. And a Paul Lemon centre picked out Eric Gates, but his header lacked any real power, and was comfortably saved by Ron Hillyard. Gordon Armstrong then followed up on the keeper, barging both him and the ball over the line, but the “goal” was quite rightly disallowed.
Then when play switched to the other end, a rather ambitious effort from Colin Greenall failed to pose any real problems to Iain Hesford, before we twice in quick succession almost added to our lead. Firstly, a Paul Atkinson centre picked out Eric Gates, whose close-range header was only just too high, then Gordon Armstrong powered his way through on goal before hitting a powerful, twenty-five yard drive which just cleared the crossbar, with Ron Hillyard well beaten.
We subsequently nearly committed defensive suicide, for a mix-up between Iain Hesford and Rueben Agboola let in Steve Lovell. But fortunately, the Gillingham striker was unable to capitalise, for his rather tame shot was easily stopped by Gary Bennett who then showed neat skill to sidestep Lovell before playing the ball back to Iain Hesford.
But Gillingham were now starting to come more into the game, as they sought to retrieve the deficit, and after Mark Cooper had headed narrowly wide, the visitors persistence finally paid off in the sixty-ninth minute, though there appeared to be a hint of offside. The dangerous David Smith put over a centre which found Mark Cooper, who this time forced the ball home from close range, to give his side a ray of hope.
Boosted by this goal, the Gills continued to press, and came close to equalising. Smith was brought down by John Kay on the edge of the area, and Iain Hesford had to produce a smart save to prevent Gavin Peacock’s curling free-kick from finding the back of the net.
Eric Gates then nearly restored our two-goal advantage, but his close-range header, following knock-on from Keith Bertschin, was well saved by Ron Hillyard. Then following another “comedy of errors” at the back, this time when Rueben Agboola sold Iain Hesford short with a back pass, the keeper was forced to dive bravely at the feet of Steve Lovell, to prevent what appeared a certain equaliser.
It was end-to-end stuff now, as we sought to seal three more points, and Gillingham strove to save at least one. Eric Gates twice came close with headed efforts, while a header from Mark Cooper was just over. But in spite of a rather frantic and nervy finale, the game ended 2-1.
All set for a promotion push
It had not been a classic by any means, though it was three more points in the bag towards our promotion quest, we had also avenged the play-off defeat at Gillingham’s hands the previous season.
There were also two further bonuses, for this latest win gave us a 100 per cent record in January, as we retained our four-point lead at the top of the Third Division, which in turn saw Denis Smith rather deservedly named as Third Division Manager of the Month.
Things were looking good then as we bid to leave the Third Division at the first time of asking.