Following our sad, but at the same time rather inevitable, relegation from the First Division at the end of season 1990-91, we were perhaps not surprisingly installed as one of the favourites for promotion in 1991-92.
For asides from ourselves, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Wolves and one or two other clubs, the Second Division of 1991-92 did tend to have a pretty ordinary look to it, and our early home form, which consisted of draws with relegation counterparts Derby and Blackburn, with a win versus Oxford sandwiched in between, was reasonably encouraging.
However, our early away form perhaps gave cause for concern, for following a fine 3-0 away at Barnsley in our first away day of 1991-92, there followed successive defeats at Millwall, Portsmouth and Swindon (who possibly saw their 5-3 win as revenge, what after the well-documented events following the Second Division play-off Final of 1990), when our defence seemed to give the impression of a colander, leaking ten goals in the process.
Thus it was perhaps with a slight degree of apprehension that just after three days after the Swindon embarrassment, we visited Upton Park, the temporary home of Charlton Athletic.
The Addicks, as they are also known, had made a rather encouraging start to their 1991-92 league programme, having taken 11 points from their first six games, and thus stood seventh in the table prior to our visit. However, as has often been the case when the odds have seemingly been against us, we proceeded to provide a shock, courtesy mainly of a rather popular player, who was making his penultimate appearance for us, before, ironically, moving to the bright lights of London. And our side showed one change to that beaten at Swindon, when Peter Davenport came in for his first appearance of the season, in place of Brian Atkinson.
But it was Charlton who began the brightest, though having weathered the home side’s early pressure we took the lead after 12 minutes. A superb defence-splitting pass from Paul Bracewell picked out Colin Pascoe in a great position, and when the Welshman was fouled by former Arsenal man Steve Gatting inside the area, the referee was left with no option but to award a penalty. And Gary Owers duly obliged, beating our ex-keeper Bob Bolder rather comprehensively. However, our lead was short-lived, for just two minutes hence, the home side drew level, for following an inswinging corner from Andy Peake, Simon Webster headed powerfully past Tony Norman.
After this, play tended to be fairly even, and while Charlton’s giant striker Carl Leaburn caused us one or two problems, the nearest either side came to another goal was when Paul Bracewell clipped the bar with a speculative effort from 20 yards. Thus the interval came with the score still at 1-1, with at this stage, no real hint of what was to come early in the second period, when the outcome of the game was decided in a rather crazy six-minute spell.
And the second-half fireworks started less than a minute after the break. Peter Davenport headed against the bar following a corner from Gary Owers, and when Colin Pascoe failed to latch onto the loose ball, Marco Gabbiadini showed how it should be done, when he pounced to prod the ball home and restore our advantage.
Tony Norman then did well to block a close-range effort from Colin Walsh, as Charlton sought an immediate response. But our host’s task then further increased in magnitude, when we made it 3-1 after 49 minutes, thanks to a great effort from Marco Gabbiadini. Our young striker went on a powerful run, shrugging off the rather determined efforts of two defenders inside the penalty area, before comfortably beating Bolder. Then just three minutes later it was game over, when Owers and Pascoe combined to set up the chance for Gabbiadini to complete this third and final Sunderland hat-trick. Indeed, the 4-1 scoreline reminded me of a similar win, by 4-0, in the same fixture 11 years earlier, in the promotion season of 1979-80.
Charlton were clearly shell-shocked by this quick three-goal burst, and while they tried to gallantly battle back, their efforts proved to be in vain. Future Mag Robert Lee and Carl Leaburn both came close, though we were not without further chances to add to our goal tally. But it ended 4-1 in our favour, it had been a great night’s entertainment for those of our fans who’d made the long trip to East London, while this great win shot us up to eighth place in The Second Division table.
Unfortunately however, Marco Gabbiadini was unable to sign off his Sunderland career with a similar performance in his farewell game v newly-promoted Grimsby at Roker four days hence, in fact it was a miserable day all-round, as The Mariners ended up 2-1 winners. This in fact, was the story of our 1991-92 season, at least as far as the league went, i.e. inconsistency, and some rather dreadful performances/results.
For in addition to the two aforementioned nightmares at Millwall and Swindon, there came a rather horrendous performance/0-3 defeat at then bottom club Oxford just after Christmas, which was in fact a fifth straight away reverse, and left us in 17th place in the Second Division table. And perhaps not too surprisingly, Denis Smith was handed his P45 just two days later, after our failure to live up to our pre-season billing as promotion favourites.
But of course, it hadn’t always been doom and gloom under Smith’s leadership. In fact we owed him a lot, after he got us back on track and effected a U-turn from possible disaster, following the unmitigated disaster which passed for the Mackemenemy era. He was also responsible for bringing Gabbiadini to Roker from his old club York, a masterstroke in hindsight.
For Marco went on to become a Sunderland legend with his goalscoring feats, and his final hat-trick v Charlton perhaps a reminder of better times at Roker Park.