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Way Back When: Sunderland 1–1 Notts County (1988) – Showdown at high noon!

The oldest club in English football came to town in March 1988. In-form Notts County were looking to consolidate their place at the top of the league. Sunderland only wanted three things: to beat them, gain top spot, and get out of Division Three at the first attempt.

Marco Gabbiadini Photo by Tom Jenkins/Allsport/Getty Images

Over 24,000 people watched this game. Expectation was rife. Even the TV cameras turned up. I was lucky to be there. I no longer lived in Sunderland and this was a great weekend to be back. It was the biggest game of the season so far.

The sense of expectation was enhanced because there had been so much misery in the recent past.

Lawrie McMenemy had arrived to much pomp before the start of the 1985-1986 season. He lost his first league game to Blackburn Rovers, managed by Bobby Saxton. He then continued to lose the next four league games. Much had been expected of him, little was given. We finished the season four points off relegation.

The next season started better but soon deteriorated. My Dad took us to see the home game versus Grimsby Town on the 27th December. Less than 14,000 people attended this festive fixture. Our team included Bennett, Armstrong, Proctor, Gates and European Cup Winner Alan Kennedy but it was a terrible game: utterly uninspiring and bearing all the hallmarks of the McMenemy era. Sunderland lost 1-0.

McMenemy persisted. Things worsened. His last game, in April 1987, was a defeat, at home, to a Sheffield United team which included Clive Mendonca and Peter Beagrie. In April he was replaced by Bob Stokoe who attempted to save us. Stokoe’s heroic efforts included a 1-1 draw at home to a Leeds team managed by Billy Bremner.

Lawrie McMenemy Getty Images

However, it was all too much to ask, and we were relegated after our two leg play-off game with Gillingham, going down on away goals. Faraway from Sunderland, somewhere near Bristol, I listened to the second leg on the radio. I was thirteen and I remember it was a Sunday. I wondered how this could happen to a team Like Sunderland, a team which hadn’t experienced relegation until 1958.

Can any Sunderland supporter today imagine spending sixty-eight years in the same division, and the top one, at that? The utter monotony of it must be spectacular. My immunity to SAFC related tragedy (and farce) has grown stronger and stronger since that day in May 1987. Jabs are usually annual.

Dennis Smith arrived soon after. He said we would go up. And then we did. The rarity of such an occurrence is worthy of note i.e. somebody in authority at Sunderland saying something aspirational and then it happening.

In the great sweep of things (these being things which included six top division titles) Smith’s achievements in the 1987-1988 season may appear moderate. However, given the recent past, that is no longer so.

The big match of March 1988 was not the first time I had seen Sunderland that season. In October my friend Kevin – a sort-of Norwich supporter - asked his parents to take us to watch the Bristol City game at Ashton Gate. They kindly obliged, and we all sat in the Bristol City end. Aged thirteen this was my first ever away game and my first time up close with opposition fans. They were quieter and less angry than what I was used to. Sunderland won 1-0; Gary Owers scoring in the first minute.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Coventry City v Sunderland - Highfield Road Photo by Dave Munden - PA Images via Getty Images

A Scottish man, sitting next to me, said good-bye at the end. His parting shot was: that’s a fair, nippy striker you’ve got there. He was talking about Marco Gabbiadini.

It is difficult to explain, to those too young to remember, just how great an impact Gabbiadini had on Sunderland; not least because he was a focus for hope when there had been so little for some time. He was unbelievably quick and powerful, and he scored exciting goals.

Two seasons later I was watching Sunderland in a 3-3 draw away to Portsmouth. At one point in that game Gabbiadini got the ball on the edge of the box. Portsmouth had two men on him. From a near standing start he exploded past them and curled the ball past the keeper and into the bottom corner of the net. It was a great goal but more impressive was the thought that the two defenders knew what he was going to do; they just couldn’t stop him. And what was more, he played for Sunderland.

There was something more to Gabbiadini than just being a good player. He was awesome. Teed up by Eric Gates he barn-stormed through that 1987-1988 season.

Notts County brought Gary Birtles with them for the top-of-the-table showdown. He had been a very good forward: prolific for Nottingham Forest and less so for Manchester United, so he had gone back to Nottingham Forest. Now he was at Notts County and hopefully less prolific again.

Roker Park was vibrant that day. It was obvious that the crowd had shaken off the feeling of malaise from recent seasons.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Everton Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

On nine minutes Owers lobbed the ball into the box. Gabbiadini brought it down with his back to goal. He hustled and bustled and turned to put it in from close range: a remarkable goal in its ordinariness. Gabbiadini usually scored belters.

We hoped for a rout. It never came. Notts County proved resilient. They equalised in the second half through Paul Barnes (and not Gary Birtles).

Marco was subbed on eighty-two minutes. I think the post-match television report showed him walking down the tunnel at Roker Park and kicking the white painted wall in frustration.

For me, it was a shame not to win at Roker Park but great to have watched a team again who you thought could win.

Notts County fell away as the season came to an end, failing to make promotion via the play-offs. Sunderland went up as champions: the nine point gap between them and also promoted Brighton, a true indicator of how much better we were than everybody else, in that league, that year.