For much of his Sunderland career, a cloud hung over goalkeeper Iain Hesford. An excellent goalkeeper on his day – unfortunately, as the old saying goes, his day didn’t come around with the regularity anyone concerned would have wanted. He’d been much maligned for his role in Lawrie McMenemy’s sinking side, before playing an important role in the team’s promotion from the third tier under Denis Smith.
However, Smith was never convinced by Hesford – he’d tried to keep on-loan goalkeeper Steve Hardwick at the beginning of the 1987-88 season, and at the Christmas time of that season had seen a move for an unnamed, experienced keeper fall through at the last minute.
We were continually linked with Stoke keeper Peter Fox for most of 1988, and on Boxing Day Tim Carter had been selected ahead of Hesford, so it was no surprise that a new first choice keeper eventually arrived.
The only surprise was his identity.
Tony Norman was Neville Southall’s understudy for Wales, but had never played in the top flight – with all of his first team career being spent so far at Hull City.
He was a calm, athletic custodian, who was the country’s first ‘dribbling goalkeeper’ – rolling the ball out of the box and playing from the back. Until then, keepers had simply launched the ball from their hands up towards the halfway line at any given opportunity.
Wimbledon’s Dave Beasant had taken the ‘dribbling’ approach in the First Division, bringing it to a wider audience, and he attributed it to watching Tony Norman play.
Norman signed for the club in exchange for Hesford and Billy Whitehurst, who’d only joined Sunderland three months earlier.
Norman is a top class keeper. He’s an international and is unfortunate to have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Neville Southall in front of him in the Welsh side.
He is close to 31, but I think he will still be playing at 38 or 39. He is a consistent performer, who has always impressed me as being one of the best keepers in the country.
For Norman, the prospect of one day playing top flight football was a key pulling factor, prophetically saying:
I’ve never played in the First Division, but I’m going to. My money is on Sunderland to go up. If we don’t manage it this season, I’m convinced we will do it next season.
I had been happy at Boothferry Park, but the draw of a big club like Sunderland was too powerful.
Norman was thrown straight into the team – although star striker Marco Gabbiadini was fortunate to make it after the new keeper clattered him in training as the pacy forward ran onto a through ball, forcing him to depart the pre-game training session early.
Fortunately, Marco was OK after treatment, and Tony was certainly very impressive in training.
Sunderland had rejected Portsmouth’s request for an early kick off – presumably the Pompey team, which included Kevin Ball, Micky Quinn and – on the bench – Paul Hardyman, were keen to get back home to see the new year in.
With Gates, revitilsed by the prospect of an extended run in the team following Whitehurst’s departure, partnering Marco up front, Sunderland started the game brightly, with Gabbiadini’s ‘pace and persistence’ – two qualities he had in abundance – creating chances for Owers, Armstrong and Pascoe. None were taken, and Bennett’s sliced clearance caused a momentary problem for the debutant Norman, before ex-England striker Gates gave the home team the lead just after the half hour mark.
Sunderland were piling the pressure on the Portsmouth defence, and the ball was eventually worked to Gabbiadini on the left hand side of the box. Marco pulled it back to his strike partner, who guided the ball home left footed past Alan Knight.
Seconds before half time it was 2-0, Gates heading home from an Owers cross – although young defender Richard Ord claimed a slight touch as the ball went towards goal. A bemused Gates presumed the stadium announcer had made a mistake when he announced the goalscorer, but the record books – controversially in my view – show an Ord goal!
Nevertheless, it was 2-0 and shortly after half time, Sunderland-supporting Portsmouth player Kevin Dillon handed the home team the three points by receiving a red card for telling the referee exactly what he thought about his decision to turn down a penalty shout.
Gates was having a stormer, and played in Armstrong to finish clinically just after the hour mark – Portsmouth’s Kevin Ball took exception to the scoreline, and pushed Armstrong in the face shortly afterwards, prompting a brawl involving players from both teams. Ball, Bennett and Barry Horne were yellow carded – Bally fortunate not to join his mate Dillon in an early bath.
Three became four on 75 when Colin Pascoe fired home from a tight angle, by which point Norman had touched the ball, producing a fine fingertip save from Martin Kuhl.
A four-nil home win with a new record-signing in goal rounded a very good year – a year in which we’d regained pride – in style, and showed promise of better things to come.
Which, as Tony Norman predicted, they did.
Sunderland 4-0 Portsmouth
Goals: Gates 33, Ord 44, Armstrong 61, Pascoe 75
Sunderland: Norman, Bennett, Gray (Agboola 60), Ord, MacPhail, Doyle (Cornforth 75), Owers, Armstrong, Gates, Gabbiadini, Pascoe,
Portsmouth: Knight, Neill, Sandford (Hardyman 45) Kuhl, Hogg, Ball, Chamberlain (Kelly 38), Horne, Aspinall, Quinn, Dillon.