Sometimes after a promotion season, the following campaign gets off to a flying start – the momentum built during stretches of victories carries on after the summer, and the team simply continues where they left off.
Unfortunately, the opening stages of Sunderland’s 1988-89 season wasn’t anything like that.
Heading towards the latter stages of October, we’d played 10 league games, and notched only two wins – those coming in consecutive home games against Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic and Billy Bremner’s Leeds.
We’d only lost three games, however, but were hovering worryingly around the relegation zone; after the hope and promise Denis Smith had engendered during the Third Division campaign, we surely weren’t going to be caught up in another relegation battle, were we?
Smith, who typically hadn’t been backed in the transfer market, had only been able to make one real signing of any note – journeyman centre forward Billy Whitehurst had arrived during the season’s opening weeks, in an £80,000 deal with Reading.
He’d immediately displaced Eric Gates as Marco’s partner up front, but had only one goal in seven so far, although that was a cracker – a diving header in the Fulwell End to beat Leeds.
Injuries to skipper Gary Bennett and full back John Kay had also prompted a reshuffle at the back, with 18-year-old Richard Ord drafted into partner John MacPhail in the heart of defence, and veteran Frank Gray deployed as a sweeper behind the two centre backs.
Gary Owers, meanwhile, was moved to right back to cover Kay’s absence. Normally a tireless, box-to-box midfielder, Owers’ attributes were well suited to full back – Smith, a short while later, was of the opinion Owers was a future England right back. That, of course, didn’t materialise.
A goalless draw at Hull the previous week had suggested the backline was becoming more robust, and in the build up to a home game against Swindon Town 33 years ago today, Smith was fulsome in his praise of Ord, who he’d told the press would keep his place despite the return to fitness of Bennett.
Smith said to The Journal:
How would Ord feel if he was left out after playing so well at Hull last week? Hull didn’t have a chance, so it would have been very difficult to leave out him or John MacPhail to let Bennett return.
Ord had been in the team for over a month after pulling his groin in the League Cup tie at West Ham, and Smith had been impressed with his performances after a shaky start.
He made a couple of mistakes at first, but has learned from them. The lad can certainly play. Perhaps he’s not the quickest in the world, but he’s good in the air and can tackle.
Richard is as comfortable on the ball as any centre-half I’ve seen – he looks very, very good for an 18-year-old.
Remember that he is playing in a sweeper system which is new to him, but it means he can have some valuable experience with the safety net of a sweeper behind him.
Sunderland’s opponents Swindon Town were managed by the highly-rated Lou Macari. The former Manchester United player was earning a good reputation as a manager – in fact, in the days leading up to this game, he was being strongly linked, along with Oldham’s Joe Royle and ex-Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw, to be Willie McFaul’s replacement up the road.
That may have had some impact on the Robins, who went into the game with only one defeat so far – three wins and six draws suggesting they would be very tough opponents.
As it turned out, Sunderland turned in their best performance of the season so far – and Swindon one of their worst – as the lads romped home.
The first goal was scored by stand-in full back Owers on 20 minutes. Iain Hesford’s long kick was beautifully controlled by Whitehurst, who laid the ball back to Owers on the right.
Owers cut inside and drove towards goal, played a neat one-two with Big Billy before lifting the ball over the defenders and just managing to get there ahead of the on-rushing Fraser Digby. Defender Jon Gittens may have gotten the final touch, but Owers claimed it.
One became two six minutes later. Some neat interplay between Pascoe and Whitehurst saw the Welshman just overrun the ball – but the relentless Gabbiadini saw the opportunity to win back possession, sliding in on Swindon’s Steve Foley.
Whitehurst picked the ball up, dribbled into the box before laying the ball out to Steve Doyle, who was offering some width on the right.
Doyle’s cross to the back post was headed back across goal by Armstrong towards Gabbiadini, who fired home from six yards.
For some reason, Marco wore the number nine shirt while Whitehurst was his partner – I’ve never understood why – and it always seems strange seeing him wheel away in celebration with the 9 on his back.
Sunderland continued the pressure on the Swindon goal, but had to wait until the closing stages of the game to increase the lead.
On 73, Billy Whitehurst got the goal his all-round play deserved.
A huge kick from Hesford reached the edge of the Swindon box; Whitehurst span round his marker before lobbing the ball beautifully over the keeper to make it three.
A few minutes later, it was four – Gabbiadini storming in at the far post to power a header into the back of the Fulwell End net.
A well-deserved victory, and an impressive one against a team who, before kick off, had only conceded 10 goals in the 10 games they’d played.
Of course, Lou Macari didn’t get the Newcastle job – he was deemed ‘too abrasive’ apparently – and he stayed with Swindon to guide them into the play-offs – and he’d figure heavily in the story of Sunderland’s 1989-90 season. But that’s a story (or maybe a podcast) for another day.
The result lifted Sunderland from 19th to 14th in the table, and while we briefly flirted with the play-off spots we were content with mid-table.
After four seasons that had brought two relegations, one close call, and finally a promotion, a season of mid-table obscurity was rather welcome.