After playing out a fifth round home draw with top flight West Ham, it seemed our FA Cup dreams might be over for another season.
Malcolm Crosby’s side had defeated Port Vale and Oxford in the third and fourth rounds, and were rewarded with a home tie against the Hammers.
John Byrne’s goal pulled us level at Roker after Mike Small’s opener, but we just didn’t have enough to seal victory and a trip to Upton Park awaited.
Our last trip there had been one to forget. In the 1989-90 season we’d been stuffed 5-0 – Stuart Slater scoring the pick of the bunch – but come the end of the season we finished in sixth place, two points and one place ahead of West Ham, and we had gone up thanks to Swindon’s propensity to steer clear of the tax man. Among other things.
The following season, as we battled bravely but unsuccessfully to avoid relegation from the top flight, West Ham, under Billy Bonds, claimed second place and automatic promotion, taking our place in the first division.
By the time the FA Cup fifth round replay came around, we were comfortable in midtable obscurity, Malcolm Crosby had inspired the side to put a string of good results together which had stabilised a team on a downward spiral. And we knew a quarter final at Stamford Bridge was next up for the victors.
Sunderland lined up:
Norman, Kay, Ball, Rogan, Hardyman, Rush, Bracewell, Atkinson, Armstrong, Davenport, Byrne. Subs: Sampson, Brady.
West Ham’s team that night was:
Parks, Breaker, Potts, Foster, Dicks, Keen, Atteveld, Bishop, Allen, Slater, Small. Subs: Thomas, Morley
The game got off to a flying start, and it was John Byrne who got the game’s first goal, latching on to a horrendous back pass from Potts and steering the ball cooly past Parks.
The visiting fans’ joy turned into ecstasy quarter of an hour later. Davenport controlled a Kevin Ball clearance, turned neatly and played a measured pass to Byrne.
The Republic of Ireland striker had two defenders chasing him, but twisted and turned them to slot the ball past the goalkeeper and double Sunderland’s lead.
The two goal advantage didn’t last for long. Martin Allen, a superbly talented midfield player, ran unchallenged from the right wing to the edge of our box, and fired in low past Tony Norman.
And ten minutes into the second half, Allen equalised, thumping home from 25 yards after Bishop rolled a free kick to him.
It all seemed set up for a West Ham victory, Sunderland’s early dominance extinguished and momentum firmly with the first division team. Tony Norman was in superb form though, and kept the scores level.
They almost went in front when Breaker evaded a Rogan challenge, powered towards the box and fired in a shot destined for the top corner.
Norman, diving to his left, brought his right arm across and acrobatically tipped the ball around for a corner. A super save, and one that got better every time you saw it.
Sunderland, of course, grabbed a winner – the mercurial West Ham tormenter Kieron Brady floated a nice ball in from the right, John Byrne flicked it on and David Rush was on hand to power it home.
But it was Norman’s save that was the highlight of the game.
The former Hull stopper had been Sunderland’s record signing when Denis Smith secured a deal in December 1988 that saw the then 30-year-old Norman travel up the east coast and Billy Whitehurst and Iain Hesford – plus a sizeable amount of money – headed on the opposite direction.
The club had tried for three and a half years to replace Chris Turner, and it was Norman who eventually managed to fill those gloves.
The Welsh international, who would have surely won over 100 caps for his country had it not been for the presence of Neville Southall, was a majestic keeper. Calm, assured, and capable of pulling off the spectacular when needed.
While Dave Beasant was widely thought of to be the first ‘dribbling’ goalkeeper, Beasant himself said he’d only brought it into his own game after watching Tony Norman play.
In an era where keepers rarely ventured out of their box, Norman frequently rolled the ball out, dribbled it for ten or 15 yards, before launching an attack.
The fact he was comfortable on the ball helped greatly too when keepers were getting used to the back pass rule a few years later.
He played 227 games for Sunderland before departing aged 37 to Huddersfield at the end of the season that saw Peter Reid’s rescue act.
He was in goal for Huddersfield the day Michael Bridges came off the bench at Roker Park and scored two to claim a 3-2 win (that’s the game that Huddersfield’s Ben Thornley, on loan from Manchester United threw the ball at the ref at half time and was promptly sent off).
The ovation Bridges received at the end of the game was only second to the one that Norman received before the start of the match.
Which is the least a player of his class – on and off the field – deserved.