It was quickly approaching the midway point of the 1989-90 season, and Sunderland were right in the thick of the promotion race.
Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United were top of the pile on 45 points after 21 games, Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United were a point behind in second and Sunderland were next on 37 points, one clear of Newcastle United in fourth.
It was a Division Two that was full of sides who believed they were in with a shout of promotion to the top flight, with Ipswich Town and Oldham Athletic making up the rest of the play-off positions, and freshly relegated West Ham United sniffing around just outside alongside last years beaten play-off semi-finalists Blackburn Rovers and Swindon Town.
Denis Smith’s side had finished 11th the previous season after returning from Division Three at the first time of asking and it was a season of optimism rather than expectation. The former York City boss was building a talented young squad with the likes of Gary Owers and Gordon Armstrong in midfield, with Marco Gabbiadini up top, that were complemented with the likes of Paul Bracewell and Eric Gates to add the much-needed experience.
Things we going well and a promotion push looked to be on the cards as we had only dipped outside the top-six on a few occasions since the season kicked off, as well as having a League Cup quarter-final against Division One side Coventry City after defeating Exeter City at the beginning of December with the aid of a replay.
Next up, on this day in 1989, were John Gregory’s Portsmouth side, who were struggling at the wrong end of the table, sitting a point ahead of Middlesbrough who occupied the final relegation position as they struggled to get to grips with Division Two after returning from a season in the top flight.
Sunderland went into the fixture and the back of two successive draws, the first being a last-minute reprieve from Thomas Hauser against Swindon Town at Roker and the second was a solid point away to fellow promotion candidates Ipswich Town at Portman Road, but were still confident of collecting maximum points based on Pompey’s current struggles in the second division.
Ahead of kick-off there was slight controversy when Tim Carter was preferred to Tony Norman to start between the sticks for Sunderland. Norman had struggled to regain full fitness when he returned to action after sustaining a shoulder injury through a challenge from a certain Don Goodman, as we took on West Bromwich Albion earlier in the season and Carter got the nod.
There was also a blow to the side when 18-year-old Brian Atkinson, who had been in fantastic form, missed out due to having his appendix out, which resulted in John MacPhail returning to the starting XI and Paul Hardyman moving into midfield.
Hardyman had been signed from Portsmouth in the summer, which had ended up being a long protracted transfer that ended up going to a tribunal to set the fee after John Gregory and Portsmouth complained about Sunderland’s valuation on the player.
After just five minutes of the game, Hardyman might have thought it wasn’t going to be the most enjoyable homecoming as Sunderland fell behind to a Martin Kuhl penalty, but after Gary Bennett got us level just before the half hour, it was Paul Hardyman who gave us the lead with just less than ten minutes remaining of the first half.
In the second half, the momentum was with the lads and it took around ten minutes for us to stretch our lead through Marco Gabbiadini, making it 1-3, and job done with half an hour on the clock. But it wasn’t to be.
Only a minute after Marco had scored, Steve Wigley pulled one back to provide more uncertainty as to whether we could hold out for all three points and keep the pressure up on the top two.
But, with ten minutes remaining, a certain 25-year-old, Hastings-born, Portsmouth centre-half by the name of Kevin Ball broke the hearts of Sunderland fans by bringing Portsmouth back on level terms to snatch a point when we looked certain to pick up all three.
Ball rose to head the ball home from a Martin Kuhl free-kick, and as Peter Drury wrote in the Sunday Mirror the following day, Ball was a “tireless inspiration”, which may have convinced Denis Smith to part with £500,000 for him almost eight months later.
It could have been worse in the remaining ten minutes as it was Portsmouth who could have actually nicked maximum points, but in the end, the spoils were shared to the displeasure of manager Denis Smith, as the Evening Chronicle wrote “Furious Denis Smith pointedly refused to reveal the x-certificate content of his heated Fratton Park inquest, but he didn’t have to, it boomed out of his scarlet face”.
Saturday 16th December, 1989
Barclays League Division Two
Portsmouth 3-3 Sunderland
[Kuhl (pen) 5’, Wigley 57’, Ball 80’ - Bennett 27’, Hardyman 37’, Gabbiadini 56’]
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola, Pascoe, Owers, Armstrong, Hardyman, Gates (Hauser), Gabbiadini Substitutes not used: Lynch
Portsmouth: Knight, Neill, Hogg, Ball, Russell, Maguire, Wigley, Kuhl, Black, Gilligan (Kelly), Whittingham Substitute not used: Awford