A week’s a long time in politics, they say. Football, too.
Seven days earlier, Sunderland were booed off the field after an insipid display at Oxford resulted in a 3-0 defeat and Denis Smith losing his job.
Days later, caretaker manager Malcolm Crosby oversaw a 2-0 home win over Barnsley, and – despite mounting speculation that Neil Warnock of Notts County, or Don Mackay of Fulham were about to be installed as Smith’s permanent successor – the boyhood Sunderland fan was given another opportunity to lead the team, this time in an FA Cup Third Round tie against divisional rivals Port Vale.
With record signing Don Goodman, who’d been on the scoresheet against Barnsley, cup-tied, Peter Davenport was recalled from the bench to partner John Byrne in attack. Anton Rogan for Kevin Ball was the only other change from the side that’d beaten the Tykes.
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, Rogan, Hardyman, Owers (Sampson 62), Bracewell, Atkinson (Brady 80), Armstrong, Davenport, Byrne.
In Port Vale’s line up was Keith Houchen, a player with real FA Cup pedigree having won the Cup five years earlier for Coventry against Spurs.
Led by a purposeful Paul Bracewell, Sunderland turned in a display which was the polar opposite of those which typified Smith’s last days. A bright, vibrant and passionate performance saw the lads take an early lead – Brian Atkinson finishing well from an Armstrong cross.
Just before half-time, the recalled Davenport extended Sunderland’s lead with a cool finish from a speculative ball into the box from Bracewell, while in the second half the outstanding John Byrne netted the third.
The victory set up a Fourth Round tie at Oxford United and also helped Crosby build up some momentum for a team that had looked in more than a spot of bother only days earlier.
The following week, we hammered a Millwall team featuring Mick McCarthy at centre back 6-2 – Don Goodman getting a hat-trick and Alex Rae getting on the scoresheet for the Lions, and followed that up with a stylish win away Derby and a home draw against Port Vale before heading to the Manor Ground.
This run of form bought chairman Bob Murray some time and – as we know – Crosby remained in charge for the whole season as we saw off Oxford, West Ham, Chelsea and Norwich before meeting Liverpool in the final.
After that initial run of positive results, however, the FA Cup run masked some pretty horrendous league form.
In fact, after that victory at Derby, we only won three and drew six of the remaining 18 league games – and while we admittedly had to cram in nine games in 21 days during April, that run of form for a side that had just been relegated the season prior was pretty pathetic.
After the Norwich semi-final, we’d dropped to 21st place in the league, and looked to be in serious trouble of being relegated before seven points from our final five games saw us stay up in 18th position.
In truth, Crosby should never have been appointed and we paid the price for years to come for that poor decision – and the appointments that followed. The FA Cup was still huge back then, and it provided too much distraction for the board, who were swept away with the romance of the cup and didn’t make the decisions that needed to be made.
But it was fun while it lasted.
The FA Cup run certainly gave me some of my best ever memories supporting Sunderland – that night at West Ham, my chest being almost crushed in jubilation on the Fulwell End barriers when celebrating Armstrong’s header against Chelsea for what seemed like a full ten minutes, and standing on the Kop at Hillsborough in a sea of Red and White are the things that’ll stay with me forever.
And, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?