Living near Bristol this game presented itself as an ideal occasion for a family outing and one much more welcome than a day out somewhere like Weston-super-Mare Beach - a beach which is, of course, not as good as OUR beach: by that I mine Seaburn... and Roker... and Whitburn if you like. Some members of our family also like Hendon beach.
I’ll stop there.
Sunderland had lost the first leg of this Rumbleows Cup tie 1-0 at home a couple of weeks previously. In between they had lost to Liverpool and Aston Villa.
Our supporters are connoisseurs of relegations and, as they go, this was rather a good one. There were some memorable matches as we fought valiantly all the way - such as the final game against Manchester City. This is seared into the memory of everyone who dressed up as Elvis and attended that day.
I can’t say we expected much of our outing to Ashton Gate but it didn’t surprise me to see a few hundred in the away end for this long distance, midweek fixture. Perhaps nobody expected much, despite Bristol City being a league below us, but wherever Sunderland play you can always drum up a good number of opportunist diaspora Mackems to swell the ranks of the well travelled faithful. Shake any metropolitan tree, anywhere in the world, and some Sunderland supporters will fall out of it.
I have had to dig deep into my memory to recall this match. It sits on the margins of the fans’ collective memory and I can’t find much material anywhere else to jolt me along in recounting the key events. My brother tells me he has a recording of the goals somewhere on VHS. I think I got rid of my VHS tape recorder in 2002.
I asked my Dad what he remembered, and he said: we won. Anything else? After some thought he replied: then we came home. I asked my Mam. She said: I can’t even remember that I was there. I can remember more than that.
We were watching from the uncovered away end, behind the goal, at Ashton Gate and it didn’t rain. It was a good night, weather wise.
We arrived early enough, and we started off standing next to a bunch of lads who were in good spirits. My Mam offered them all some Raspberry Ruffles or crisps or pork pies – something like that. Aware that we would be out of the house for at least four hours my Mam had planned for at least four weeks worth of supplies. The lads politely declined and then slowly moved away to another part of the stands. I’m sure they were grateful for the offer of food but, probably wanting to have a really good swear, they were diplomatic enough to move somewhere else.
We came out in our yellow third kit and the game had barely started when Thomas Hauser scored. We were back to 1-1. Hauser went on to pick up a bad injury in this game and didn’t come back until we were well in the relegation mire: an away defeat to Southampton in April: 3-1. Thomas scoring in that one - making him the first German to score in the top flight in England.
Bristol City rallied and within five minutes they had scored, Nicky Morgan getting the goal for them as he had in the first leg at Roker Park.
We were behind again and at no time in that half did I think we would roll them over. Bristol City competed well. They had some good players; the likes of Rob Newman, Louie Donowa and Easington born Bob Taylor; and they went on to finish their second division season in a respectable ninth place.
The breakthrough came for us just before half time. Kevin Ball hit an absolute thunderbolt from a long, long way out. The ball seemed to carry off the ground but stayed low all the way into the back of the net.
We went in equal at half time and the next forty-five minutes would see us playing towards the away end. I always like it when Sunderland play towards the goal you are behind in the second half, whatever the odds.
Four minutes in and the indefatigable Gary Owers made it 3-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate. Marco had the beating of their defence for pace (you could add this line to pretty much any game between 1987-1991) and with the likes of Davenport and Bracewell able to play him in behind, Bristol City looked fragile. I said something positive about one of Marco’s defence splitting runs to the man next to me. He turned and said: he’s got gid big thighs like kebabs. I nodded thoughtfully. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
One of my favourite observations from the terraces was at a different Sunderland game away to Bristol City. I was stood in pretty much the same spot when one of our fans shouted: don’t give it to them, they’re the baddies.
Marco did what he’d threatened to do on sixty-six minutes. The Bristol City defence were too stretched to stop Tony Cullen doing likewise on seventy-seven minutes. Then Marco scored again.
It was a great second half to watch. We played through them and beat them by power, pace and precision. As at so many times in our history, we weren’t too far away from being a very good side.
We haven’t scored six away that often. Of course, if you were at Cambridge in the same round of the same cup in the same month in 2002 you saw an even more impressive goal tally. But that’s another story.