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Way Back When: 1987-88 - Sunderland’s first foray into the wilderness of the Third Division!

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Andrew Cockburn recounts the tale of Sunderland’s first season in England third tier of English football, and how this side were able to gain promotion at the first time of asking. Can you remember the 1987-88 season?

In the close season of 1987, an air of gloom hovered over Wearside - certainly around the home of its local football club. The rather tragic culmination of Lawrie McMenemy’s ill-fated reign had resulted in relegation, for the first time ever, to the backwaters of The Third Division - previously uncharted territory for our once-proud club.

No doubt, the question on quite few folks’ lips was: “where do we go from here?”

There was of course no guarantee that we’d bounce back immediately, though we could maybe take inspiration from one of our local rivals, Middlesbrough. For following their own relegation to The Third Division at the end of season 1985-86, not to mention a close brush with bankruptcy in the summer of 1986, Boro had put all their problems behind them, to achieve promotion back to The Second Division at the first attempt, passing us in the opposite direction of course.

Could we emulate Boro’s feat?

Lawrie McMenemy Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

Well to begin with, Bob Murray seemed to pull off a masterstroke of sorts, when in the summer of 1987, he appointed Denis Smith as our new manager, while Viv Busby was installed as his assistant.

Both had a sound working knowledge of the lower divisions after a successful spell at York City. It seemed then that we were in the right hands as we sought an immediate escape from English football’s third tier - and this ultimately proved to be the case.

The 1987-88 campaign began positively, with a 1-0 win at Brentford, a game which marked the debuts in defence of John Kay & John McPhail who’d joined us in the close season from Wimbledon & Denis Smith’s old club York respectively. It was also a first for young midfielder Gary Owers, while in goal was ex-Mag Steve Hardwick, who’d been signed on loan from Oxford after our regular custodian Iain Hesford had taken sick - Hardwick would enjoy an undefeated run during his short spell at Roker.

We also ironically faced Middlesbrough in the firt round of The League Cup, but our interest ended before it had even begun, as Boro recorded a 2-1 aggregate win. Our first-ever third tier home league game against Bristol Rovers ended all-square at 1-1, but then a 2-0 win on our first-ever visit to Doncaster, followed by a 4-1 win versus Mansfield at Roker, saw us top the table by the conclusion of August. So far, so good.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Manchester City v Sunderland - Maine Road Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

September, however, proved to be a bit less productive. For we drew no less than three games, versus fellow promotion hopefuls Walsall, Bury and our play-off conquerors of the previous season, Gillingham. Our unbeaten start also ended at Brighton, before Chester City emerged triumphant on their first-ever visit to Roker.

However, the latter game also saw the debut of a young striker, who’d recently been brought to the club by Denis Smith from his former club York. His name? Marco Gabbiadini, and he’d go on to write himself into SAFC folklore with his goalscoring exploits for us.

In fact, Marco was soon off the mark for us, for just three days after the Chester setback, he netted both goals in a 2-0 mid-week win at another fancied side, Fulham, to give us a taste of what was to come.

He then netted braces in the next two games: first-ever meetings at Roker versus Aldershot and Wigan, which resulted in 3-1 and 4-1 wins respectively. Eric Gates was also on target twice against Wigan, his first league goals of the season, he and Marco would forge a rather lethal partnership, “The G-force”, which would not only prove instrumental in us eventually exiting the Third Division at the first attempt, but also in helping to propel us back to The First Division.

Marco Gabbiadini
Two years later they were still going!
Photo by Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images

October was a busy but still profitable time, and we made it five wins on the bounce with victories at Blackpool & Bristol City, another side fancied to do well. We then saw off struggling York by 4-2 at Roker, when John Cornforth scored twice, what would in fact be his only goals for us, before a 3-0 win at Scarborough in the preliminary round of The Freight Rover Trophy saw us progress to the first round proper.

But then our winning sequence was ended with defeat at one of our other promotion rivals, Notts County. This was perhaps our worst performance so far in 1987-88, and served as warning that the road back to The Second Division would not necessarily be straightforward.

However, we soon recovered from the Meadow Lane setback, and in emphatic fashion, with a resounding 7-0 win v Southend, on what was The Shrimpers first-ever visit to Wearside - a game in which Eric Gates helped himself to four goals.

Grimsby then held us at Roker in the next game, before we overcame North East rivals Darlington, also at home, in the first round of the FA Cup. It then took a late penalty from John McPhail earned us a point on our first-ever visit to Chesterfield, we then comfortably disposed of Rotherham by 7-1 in the first round of The Freight Rover Trophy at Roker, before defeating Port Vale, also at home.

Soccer - Sunderland Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

But December opened in the worst possible manner, with a shock FA Cup second round FA Cup exit at Fourth Division Scunthorpe. However, promotion surely always took priority over possible cup success, and as such we recovered from the Scunthorpe debacle to record a fine win at another of the front runners, Northampton.

An Eric Gates hat-trick helped us to a pre-Christmas home win versus Rotherham before Chester City were beaten at Sealand Road on Boxing Day. But then the biggest home gate of the season so far, just under 25,000, looked like being disappointed, when we seemed on course for defeat against lowly Preston after a below-par performance (due to too much turkey maybe?). Thankfully, a late penalty by John McPhail rescued us a point and spared our blushes.

January then proved to be our best month so far. Home wins over promotion rivals Brighton, Crewe (Freight Rover) Doncaster & Gillingham (revenge is sweet), along with another success at Bury, gave us a 100% record for the month, which deservedly earned Denis Smith the divisional manager of the month award. Things were looking good.

Things then went a bit pear-shaped during February & March. For during this time, we recorded just two wins, at home against Brentford & Fulham, and also drew on five occasions versus Walsall, Preston, Blackpool, Wigan and Notts County. Mind you, the latter three stalemates were marred by controversy, when our opponents grabbed rather dubious equalizers.

We also suffered four rather embarrassing defeats in this period. At Roker, when our Fourth Division neighbours Hartlepool ended our interest in The Freight Rover Trophy, in what surely ranked as our worst performance, certainly at home, of the season. Also at Aldershot, Bristol Rovers & York, the latter game marking the debuts of recent acquisitions Dougie Maguire (whose time at Roker was rather short-lived) and Colin Pascoe (who actually scored, ironically after replacing Maguire).

This lapse in form saw us lose our position as leaders, while to compound matters, crowd disturbances at Bootham Crescent landed us in bother with The FA. But re our promotion/Championship bid, were we about to blow it?

Soccer - Barclays League Division Three - York City v Sunderland - Bootham Crescent Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Thankfully not, for we recovered just when it mattered most, and three successive wins in early April against Grimsby, Chesterfield & Southend returned us to the top, with Second Division football in 1988-89 now very much in our sights.

However, Bristol City then surprised us at Roker, to maybe illustrate that we were far from being home and dry just yet. But this proved to be merely a blip, for a 4-0 win in the next game at Mansfield saw us within touching distance of The Second Division.

After effectively securing promotion all that was left was to clarify was which team would win the league itself... it was decided without us even kicking a ball. For Walsall’s defeat at Bristol Rovers on May bank holiday Monday, meant we went into our final home game of the season against Northampton that same evening, already crowned as Champions.

And we celebrated the occasion in style, running out 3-1 winners in front of nearly 30,000 fans - the best home gate in the North East in 1987-88 - before rounding off matters rather emphatically, with a 4-1 win at Rotherham (they must have been sick of the sight of us in 1987-88!), in our final game.

It may have been slightly embarrassing, what for us to be sampling third-tier football, but once we got into our stride, 1987-88 proved to be rather enjoyable, as we at times played some good stuff, handed one or two good beatings, and eventually won the title with a fair bit to spare. The first phase of our “recovery mission” had been quite a resounding success.