It was almost 11 weeks to the day since Malcolm Crosby had taken charge of his first game for Sunderland, but he’d already packed a lot into his short time as caretaker manager.
Denis Smith’s Sunderland hadn’t adjusted to life back in Barclays League Division Two as everyone had hoped, after falling out of the First Division at the end of one solitary season in the top tier. The ex-Stoke City centre-half had tried shuffling his backroom staff to freshen things up, and had even sold fan favourite Marco Gabbiadini to Crystal Palace for a club record £1.8 million in September to bring in new recruits.
Don Goodman, John Byrne and Anton Rogan were added to the ranks leading up to the festive period, but something wasn’t quite clicking. After a defeat on Boxing Day at Tranmere Rovers, which was followed by a resounding 3-0 defeat at Brian Horton’s Oxford United 48 hours later, Sunderland sat 17th in Division Two, and Denis Smith was relieved of his duties at Roker Park.
By this time, Malcolm Crosby had moved up to become his assistant after initially being brought to the club to be the youth team coach. Being a Sunderland fan, Crosby jumped at the chance then, and couldn’t turn down the latest request from chairman Bob Murray to hold the fort while the club looked for a replacement.
Immediately, South Shields-born Crosby went to work. On new year’s day 1992, he took charge of his first game at Roker against Barnsley, as Sunderland ran out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Gordon Armstrong and Don Goodman and moved up to 15th in the table. This was backed up by dispatching Port Vale 3-0 in the FA Cup third round, followed by a 6-2 victory over Millwall that included a Don Goodman hat-trick.
As Sunderland very quickly rose to the relative security of mid-table, names previously linked to the job such as Neil Warnock, Don Mackay, Colin Todd, Bruce Rioch, Joe Jordan and John Beck were all taking up fewer column inches as the weeks passed by, and something was clearly happening around the man who was tasked with keeping it steady until a more permanent solution was found.
By mid-March, although Sunderland’s league form had faltered, we had knocked Oxford United, as well as First Division West Ham United out of the FA Cup, to reach the quarter-final and set up a tie with Chelsea.
Chelsea at that time were managed by a Sunderland legend in the form of Ian Porterfield, who was also a name that was heavily linked with the vacant position at Roker Park. He knew full well the potential of cup ties under the floodlights at Roker Park, as a John Byrne header with ten minutes remaining of the tie at Stamford Bridge forced a replay.
Just over 26,000 turned up at Roker Park, as did the Sky cameras for the first time, after they had covered the original draw in the capital. The Chelsea fans had the middle section of the Roker End meaning either wing in the terraced stand was left vacant and predictably for Sunderland in mid-March, it was blowing a gale and freezing cold.
It all built up to an atmosphere of a type only Roker Park could generate, where you had that feeling a big night lay ahead, and the lads did not disappoint by going after the top flight side from the off.
Peter Davenport attacked the Chelsea defence early on and saw his shot deflected out for a corner. Every touch from a Sunderland player was met with a roar that seemed to move the ball independently towards the Chelsea goal which, combined with the wind, gave the visitors a torrid opening spell defending an intimidating Fulwell End.
The resultant corner was a dangerous one to the near post from Brian Atkinson, but was cleared and eventually found its way to Paul Bracewell on the edge of the box. The ex-Everton midfielder whipped the ball in with his left foot to the back post to find Gordon Armstrong, who slotted home from six yards out, only to see it ruled out for offside as he ran towards the linesman.
The pressure applied by Crosby’s side was relentless as more corners were forced and free-kicks in dangerous areas were won, until around the 20 minute mark, when we finally made the pressure count. A rare Chelsea counter-attack was halted by good work by Brian Atkinson, before he slipped the ball to David Rush, who charged into the Chelsea half before releasing John Byrne down the right flank.
Byrne cut inside Paul Elliott and got into the box on his left foot, before getting a low shot off that Dave Beasant could only parry straight into the path of Peter Davenport, who slotted home in front of the Fulwell End. It was nothing more than Sunderland deserved. It would stay like that until half time, when the home crowd responded to the side’s performance with resounding appreciation.
Chelsea began to get a foothold in the second half and forced Tony Norman into two world-class point blank saves, first from Kerry Dixon, then from Dennis Wise. After his heroics at Upton Park in the fifth round, this didn’t come as a surprise to the Fulwell End behind him, but Wise stared in disbelief as his close range shot resulted in nothing more than a corner.
Both sides threatened further, with Bracewell twice clearing off the line for Sunderland, Paul Elliott at the other end made a last ditch tackle to deny Davenport scoring an open goal, then Byrne had another goal for Sunderland ruled out for offside, before Tony Cascarino hit the bar.
It was the type of cup tie that gave birth to the phrase “this game is like a cup tie”.
With five minutes remaining however, Crosby’s side lost concentration for a split second, and the game was turned on its head. A long punted ball forward from Beasant was cleared to Vinnie Jones, who then hooked the ball back into the area where Dennis Wise ran in behind the Sunderland back line and slotted past Norman.
There was a single scream as the ball hit the net, then silence, followed by the dull roar from the opposite end of the ground, that was almost a backdrop to the deafening silence that fell across the remaining three stands.
Thoughts turned to extra time as the players looked shell shocked, but then a clever switch of the play only two minutes after surrendering the lead from John Byrne to David Rush won Sunderland a corner.
Brian Atkinson stepped up where the Clock Stand met the Roker End and hit the corner in almost a straight line towards the penalty spot, and with perfect precision, Gordon Armstrong was running to meet it. Then, from a position that some players find difficult with the ball at their feet, met it with the most perfect header that you will ever see that sailed into the opposite corner past the despairing Beasant.
The whistles from the crowd during the seemingly endless hours of injury time were deafening. But when the referee signalled the end of the game, the fans engulfed the pitch and Sunderland had earned a place in the FA Cup semi-final.
Almost fitting that it turned out to be our last victory at Roker Park in the FA Cup.
I’m going to sound like an old git, but I don’t care.
You just don’t get cup ties like that anymore.
Sunderland 2 - 1 Chelsea
(Davenport 20’, Armstrong 88’ - Wise 85’)
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Ball, Rogan, Hardyman (Ord), Rush, Atkinson, Bracewell, Armstrong, Davenport, Byrne Substitute not used: Brady
Chelsea: Beasant, Clarke, Elliott, Cundy (Allen), Sinclair, Le Saux (Stuart), Jones, Townsend, Wise, Dixon, Cascarino