It had been 27 years since Brian Clough had graced the turf at Roker Park as a Sunderland player, but a record that read 63 goals in 74 appearances would ensure that on this day 30 years ago, he would receive a hero’s welcome on Wearside.
The current man in charge was Denis Smith, and he was beginning his fourth season as manager of Sunderland – remarkably in the First Division.
Having taken over from Lawrie McMenemy following relegation to Division Three in the summer of 1987, it had taken Smith only three years to return Sunderland to the top flight for the first time since 1984-85.
This meteoric rise had its disadvantages however, Sunderland had finished 6th in Division Two the previous season and gained promotion despite defeat in the play-off final thanks to Swindon Town’s financial irregularities.
The rate of knots at which Denis Smith had dragged the club through the divisions meant that six players who were in the starting XI for Sunderland’s first game in the Third Division in 1987 against Brentford at Griffin Park, also featured in our starting XI for the opening day of the First Division campaign against Norwich City at Carrow Road – John Kay, Reuben Agboola, Gary Bennett, John MacPhail, Gary Owers and Gordon Armstrong – while a seventh, Marco Gabbiadini, had obviously featured prominently in what was at that point our only ever season in Division Three.
At our first board meeting after it had been confirmed that we would be replacing Swindon in the First Division, I asked, “what money have you got to strengthen?”. At that meeting my budget for transfer fees was set at £500,000, but I was not given an increase in wage budget. So if I wanted to bring anyone in I would have to prune my existing squad first.
With his hands tied, Kevin Ball, who signed in a deal worth £350,000 from Portsmouth, was brought into strengthen the backline, and Eric Gates was replaced with Peter Davenport from Middlesbrough who broke the bank at £300,000.
Despite early promise in the form of an impressive home draw against Tottenham Hotspur, backed up by a victory over Manchester United in the space of five days in August, Sunderland remained in the bottom six from September onwards.
By the time Sunderland were due to face Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at Roker Park on 16th February 1991, we sat 17th and only three points above bottom-of-the-table Derby County, with only six points separating the bottom six clubs.
It was clear Denis Smith needed reinforcements for the run-in and at the beginning of February the board relented and handed over £225,000 for the manager to spend on Republic of Ireland under 21 international Brian Mooney from Third Division Preston North End.
Every time I had seen him he had played extremely well and looked really fast, with an ability to go past people, hurting defences. But I have to admit I got this one wrong. John McGrath stitched me up. Mooney was a bad signing. I’d go so far as to say a disaster. He seemed to be carrying an injury that affected his pace and mobility. In short he was a disaster.
Snowstorms had battered England in the week leading up to game, which was officially given the go ahead only 48 hours ahead of kick-off. Denis Smith struggled to attend a reserve game at Elland Road to run the rule over Bulgarian international left-back Alexander Markov, who was on trial at Roker from Slavia Sofia. The evidence of the hard work to keep the game on as scheduled could be seen in the piles of snow around the edge of the pitch as the two sides took to the field.
As well as a debut for Brian Mooney, an injury to Paul Hardyman meant that 19-year-old Anthony Smith was also in the starting line-up for the first time since the end of October, when he experienced a torrid evening as Sunderland went down 6-0 to Derby County in the Rumbelows Cup.
Nottingham Forest, who were sitting in mid-table in the First Division, began the day as favourites, but it was Sunderland who started brightly with Gabbiadini going close early on with a header that was smartly tipped over by Mark Crossley. Gordon Armstrong also made Crossley pull off an impressive save with five minutes of the first half remaining, when he hit a shot from six yards out straight at the Forest keeper.
Sunderland finally beat Crossley from the resultant corner to take the lead, when a well worked set piece resulted in Colin Pascoe finding Kevin Ball at the back post who headed back across goal for Marco to nod in from close range. It was Gabbiadini’s ninth goal of the season in Division One, but his first goal in ten games.
At the beginning of the second half, Roy Keane almost set up Phil Starbuck who saw his shot saved smartly by Tony Norman in the Sunderland goal. Denis Smith’s side could have extended their lead late on as a long ball by Kevin Ball set Gabbiadini free beyond the Forest back four, but brave goalkeeping at the striker’s feet once again saved the day for Clough’s side.
Sunderland held on for all three points to pull six points clear of the drop, but despite the fact only two sides were relegated that year due to the expansion of the top flight to 22 teams, Denis Smith’s side ended up as one of them. Almost doing enough, despite the lack of support for the manager in the transfer market, but falling at the final hurdle against Manchester City in May.
Bob Murray accepts that this was a mistake now. More than it was a big error that would eventually destabilise the club and my career, sending both into a wilderness from which neither would recover for some years. If we’d realised the opportunity in 1990 that was there for us to push on then Sunderland could have been amongst the top five or six teams in the country, but we didn’t.
Sunderland: Norman, Owers, Bennett, Ball, Smith, Mooney, Bracewell, Armstrong, Pascoe, Davenport, Gabbiadini Substitutes not used: Kay, Atkinson
Nottingham Forest: Crossley, Laws, Chettle, Walker, Pearce, Starbuck (Crosby), Keane, Gaynor (Hodge), Parker, Wilson, Clough