I stood and watched from the upstairs window of my grandparents’ house in Fulwell Road as the police marched the Middlesbrough fans to Roker Park in the sunshine. They were hemmed in and nudged along like animals though they looked passive enough. I would be joining them in half an hour or so, sort of.
This was the third game of a new season. We had beaten Swindon away in the first game and then lost at home to Ipswich.
It was hard to predict how Sunderland would fair in the 1989-1990 campaign. The previous season, momentous in English football for drama on the pitch and terrible tragedy off it, had been a strange one for us.
Sunderland had finished in eleventh place. There had been a lack of desperation or euphoria: hallmarks which distinguished most of our games, most of the time.
In February 1990 we went, as a family, to watch a home game versus Walsall. This may have been my little brother’s first game, poor chap. He will have been seven years old. Walsall were, I think, rooted to the bottom of the table then. It certainly ended that way for them in May. They beat us 3-0, Stuart Rimmer scored a hat-trick, and the Fulwell End clapped them off. Irony I think. Tony Cullen made his debut that day, coming on for Reuben Agboola.
The game against Middlesbrough on that warm late summer’s afternoon could not possibly be worse than that, I hoped.
Middlesbrough had some good players and they gave us a good scudding at their place later in the season. They even reached the Full Members Cup Final in March, losing to Chelsea; but they had sold Pallister before the end of August and bombed in the league, narrowly avoiding relegation in May 1990 by beating Newcastle 4-1 in their final game. This, mercifully, providing Newcastle with some preparation for crushing defeat to local rivals in the near future.
Received wisdom from the internet-forums is now NOT to call this a derby and only to refer to the Newcastle game as such. I don’t remember if anybody cared about this distinction in 1989, despite the greater rivalry with Newcastle.
Over twenty thousand people turned up to watch Sunderland versus Middlesbrough at Roker Park. Both teams went for it and the result was a great game.
Sunderland lined up with Norman, Agboola, Hardyman, Bracewell reboot 2.0, Bennett, MacPhail, Owers, Armstrong, Gates, Gabbiadini and Pascoe. I mention them all because, give or take a John Kay, this was the largely settled team I remember from my youth: tragic and triumphant by turn, something likeable about each player. I don’t know the numbers but between them they will have amassed an impressive amount of appearances.
Gary Pallister and Tony Mowbray lined up for Middlesbrough, alongside former Sunderland player Mark Proctor and future Sunderland player Peter Davenport. Stuart Ripley also played and Bernie Slaven.
George Courtney officiated against Middlesbrough. Referees weren’t as well known then as they are now but George Courtney was a recognised figure in the North East and beyond. He also had a good game against Newcastle in May 1990. That man loves to finish a match.
Bernie Slaven scored first for them and it was a scrappy goal all round. The ball fell kindly to him when Gary Bennett and Rueben Agboola got into a mix up, he broke away and slotted the ball under Tony Norman.
Bennett made amends in the second half when he went right through their defence and scuffed the ball into the bottom corner of the net. He made a few of his trademark runs in this game as Sunderland pushed for victory. His sorties into the opposition half were often magnificent and sometimes successful. They could break up the predictable pattern of a game. Nobody seemed to know where he was going or when he would get there but one such run worked out very well almost exactly a year later against Manchester United.
Colin Pascoe made it 2-1 following a sublime one-two with Gates on seventy-six minutes: Gates providing the sublimity. That isn’t to say that Pascoe wasn’t a skilful player himself; he was creative and set up plenty for others.
With only a goal in it the game was competitive to the end. A Middlesbrough equaliser in the last ten minutes would have felt like a loss. And it was in the last ten minutes that the most memorable moment of the match happened. More memorable to me now, looking back, than either of our goals.
Middlesbrough were awarded an indirect free-kick near the edge of the Sunderland box. I was sat in the main stand, towards the Roker End, and with a very good view of things. One Boro player rolled the ball to another and, as he shot, Gary Owers charged out from the wall, diving full length and blocking the effort. Adrenalin and relief fuelled the roar that greeted his commitment.
Any supporter who saw Gary Owers play for Sunderland can not have doubted his wholehearted attitude. His distinct rangy running style made him instantly recognisable. He was a good player and not afraid to go at the opposition directly. And he tried hard, and you know, we really love that. Diving at the wall on that warm late summer afternoon suggested a desire to win which resonated with the fans.
The game ended 2-1 and we left the ground unable to suppress some hope for the season ahead.