On this day 33 years ago, a sickly, patched-up Sunderland side welcomed Brentford to Roker Park as Denis Smith’s promotion push continued. The build-up to the game had been marked by an outbreak of flu amongst the squad, which laid low Reuben Agboola, Gordon Armstrong, Paul Atkinson, Ian Hesford and Richard Ord, as well as Assistant Manager Viv Busby.
It also looked like the Lads would be without goalscoring duo Eric Gates, bed-bound with a sore throat, and Marco Gabbiadini, who was nursing a groin injury, ands as the week progressed Smith was actively considering giving a debut to 17-year-old prospect John Hepple.
However, as it turned out, the illness and injury worries didn’t turn out to be as bad as first feared, leaving some wondering if it was all part of the wily gaffer’s plan all along. Gates would recover enough to make it onto the pitch and Hepple wasn’t called upon, and it was the former Ipswich man who partnered Keith Bertschin up front against Steve Perryman’s West London side. Agboola managed to shake the illness just in time for the game, Atkinson recovered to join the midfield and Gary Owers returned to take his place in the side after months on the sidelines with a broken foot.
Sunderland were 14 games unbeaten coming into this one, and had recently tied captain Gary Bennett down to a new contract, but Smith warned against complacency in his pre-match comments:
Brentford are quite a classy side. They had 70 per cent of the play against Rotherham. The result was extremely deceptive. I was most impressed with them. I think we are in for a very touch game tomorrow
Smith was awarded the Manager of the Month award before kick off, a footballing omen that often precedes a negative turn-around in form. But as it turned out, Sunderland made relatively light work of the Bees in what was described in the match reports at the time as a “masterful performance” that had promotion written all over it, and Eric Gates was at the centre of it all.
Sunderland should have taken the lead on 10 minutes when Gates played a glorious through ball to Armstrong, who had also shaken off the virus to make the starting eleven, but the local lad was dragged down by a defender before he could turn the ball home. The ref, however, had other ideas and waved our penalty claims away.
The pressure on Brentford ‘keeper Gary Phillips’ goal continued to build throughout the first half, until on 27 minutes a sweeping forward move involving Steve Doyle, Atkinson and a flick-on from striker Keith Bertschin found Owers at the back post to open the scoring.
Then, just before the break, another nice move from the Lads resulted in Bertschin putting the game beyond a Brentford side who, by this stage, were being completely outclassed. The through ball from Gates was inch perfect, and Bertschin did well to race towards goal on an uneven surface, before his shot from the edge of the box took a wicked deflection and looped into the goal at the Roker End.
Although Hesford in the Sunderland goal was forced into making a couple of decent saves in the second half, the result was hardly ever in doubt. This, however, was the final game of the unbeaten run as two away defeats in a week gave Sunderland fans a nervous end to the winter. Nevertheless, promotion was never really in doubt and Denis Smith would finish nine points above second placed Brighton by the end of our first ever season in the third tier of English football.
Keith Bertschin would leave the club for Walsall at the end of the season, but return as part of Steve Bruce’s coaching team in 2009 and now manages Solihull Moors in the National League. John Hepple would never actually make his Sunderland debut, and tragically died in 2008 after a fall at home at the age of only 37, and just hours after the death of his beloved mother.
Starting XIs: Sunderland - Hesford, Kay, Agboola, Bennett, McPhail, Atkinson (Gray), Owers, Doyle, Gates, Bertschin, Armstrong Brentford - Phillips, Joseph, Stanislaus, Millen, Evans, Jones, Turner, Hinton, Birch (Feeley), Blissett, Stewart (Smith)