With Sunderland winless in their five previous outings, a tough trip to the other end of the country to play Plymouth Argyle was the last thing they needed.
At this point the hosts had only been beaten in two home games all season, both to eventual promotion winners Manchester City in the league and League Cup, and following a dismal defeat to Leicester City the previous weekend Denis Smith’s side knew they would have to improve greatly if they were to get anything.
Conditions at Home Park were not that clever either; it was a cold, breezy and damp afternoon in Devon, but with Smith making three changes to the spine of his team and the Lads wearing all yellow, Sunderland soon managed to brighten things up.
Wearing a Hummel shirt still popular with fans to this day along with plain shorts and socks, the team looked the part in every sense as they came flying out of the blocks.
Smith had named Tim Carter in goal for his first appearance of the season, and the keeper had a fine game. It was the changes in front of him that really made the difference though, with Richard Ord coming into a flat back four and Eric Gates lining up in attack.
The switches meant an end to the sweeper system the manager had been experimenting with, and that the G Force of Gates and Marco Gabbiadini had been reunited.
Sunderland’s players immediately looked more comfortable and they could have easily gone ahead much earlier than they did.
When Sunderland did open the scoring, it was just before the half hour mark.
Good work on the left saw Colin Pascoe pulling the ball back, and after timing his run into the box perfectly Gordon Armstrong was free to just guide the ball past Alan Miller for a quality goal.
Armstrong had a penalty claim turned away in the minutes after, and so it was Pascoe who doubled the lead shortly before half time. With there seemingly being little danger, Gabbiadini forced an error within the Pilgrims’ defence and he quickly seized onto it, with his shot being beaten right into the path of Pascoe to put away.
Although they were clearly second best, Plymouth had mounted one or two dangerous attacks and both Carter and Ord had been required to make timely interventions alongside their defensive counterparts. Ord however was adjudged to have fouled in the box 10 minutes into the second half, allowing home favourite Tommy Tynan to score from the spot for his 20th goal of the season. The decision seemed harsh; it was certainly not stonewall, although referee Keith Burge had little hesitation in awarding what was the first penalty to be given against Sunderland since Smith had been appointed.
Smith had overseen Sunderland’s promotion from Division Three during 1987-88 in his first season in charge, but with only one away league win since returning to the second tier he may have worried that his team might start wobbling at this point.
It was at the other end of the pitch where the real shakes were happening though, and after chasing down another error Gabbiadini rounded Miller and poked home in front of a hardy away contingent to make it 3-1.
Sunderland had played some very good football up to this point, but with Kenny Brown and now Nicky Marker both gifting them opportunities from almost nowhere through weak back passes, the Plymouth team had done themselves no favours either.
Just before the end of the first half Gabbiadini had received an earful from Pascoe for not squaring the ball to one of his unmarked teammates after once again breaking through the Argyle defence.
Instead, Gabbiadini had gone for goal himself and although he had brought a good save from Miller the suggestion was that shooting had been the wrong option.
Moments before that the pair had embraced each other warmly following Sunderland’s second goal, and there was little evidence of any lingering animosity after the spat, not least when with less than 10 minutes to play, Gabbiadini did well on the right hand side of the box and put it on a plate for Gates to round things off with another simple finish.
It was Gates’ first of the season and meant Sunderland won 4-1, a scoreline that reflected just how fluent their attack had been.
There was even the chance of a fifth when John Uzzell headed a dangerous Frank Gray corner off his own bar in the final moments, and the Lads underlined their commitment in defence when Carter took a bang in a late goalmouth scramble.
At full time the only Plymouth sound you could hear was that of the travelling Red and White Army, who came through loud and clear on the footage broadcast back home on Tyne Tees’ Soccer Special afterwards.
Roger Tames provided the commentary for the episode having flown down to the match on the same plane as the players, but due to a dispute he was having with ITV executives at the time Sunderland chairman Bob Murray instructed his staff not to give any official interviews to Tames before the return journey.
A few weeks earlier, Murray had used the West Bromwich Albion edition of the Roker Review to outline his stance regarding the deal that ITV had agreed with the Football League over the summer. Feeling that Sunderland were not getting the going rate, he had decided to sanction only a limited amount of TV appearances and stated that access would be ‘granted pro rata to the fees paid to the club.’
Although his issue was never with Tyne Tees per se, the Plymouth game represented the 5th and final game Murray was willing to allow them to cover during the 1988-89 season.
The franchise had already been permitted four away game ‘news access’ slots (a camera crew filming for goal highlights that could be shown on local news programmes), and although Tyne Tees later found a work around and showed clips obtained by Central TV of the trip to Swindon Town in February, the company were kept out of Roker Park throughout the campaign.
The BBC meanwhile had no such issues – they had a separate deal for FA Cup coverage and having no objections to this, Murray allowed them in to film Sunderland’s tie with Oxford United.
Understandably, the Sunderland chairman stuck to his guns, and the impasse rumbled on even after the Football League were called in to try and mediate.
Murray continued his protest into the 1989-90 season, although he was reportedly willing to make a concession for the Play-Offs against Newcastle United.
With all parties recognising that demand for tickets would outstrip supply discussions were held regarding the possibility of both games being shown live on Tyne Tees, although this didn’t materialise mainly due to time constraints.
Initially, Newcastle had hoped to beam the Wearside leg back to St. James Park, but were unable to as the five large screens they wanted to rent were already being used by The Rolling Stones.
In the end supporters had to make do with extended highlights of both games, with Duncan Wood and Tames bringing them the Roker Park action.
In a boost for exiles, the return was shown country wide on Midweek Sports Special, with a national audience getting to see arguably the G Force’s finest hour plus the infamous reaction to it from the home terraces. Nick Owen headed up the programme, with Alan Parry providing commentary.
After seeing off Newcastle 2-0 on aggregate, Sunderland were eventually promoted but even being back in Division One and receiving a larger slice of the funds didn’t quell Murray’s concerns, who still felt certain clubs were getting an unfair advantage. He was reported to have lobbied others before raising the matter at the 1990 Football League annual general meeting, before eventually going so far in his cause that he even ran the risk of upsetting one of his greatest backers.
In the August of that year the managing director of main club sponsor Vaux Brewery, Frank Nicholson, spoke out about Murray’s unwillingness to allow same day use of match highlights, saying that whilst he usually appreciated his running of the club and its efforts to push the town, forward this particular action was not something he was on board with.
Vaux’s logo had of course been front and centre on those iconic yellow change shirts two years earlier when Tyne Tees had been allowed to cover the game at Plymouth, and given their limited options at the time they probably couldn’t believe their luck that 33 years ago today Sunderland produced such an emphatic win.