Bar Sunderland home games, York City’s Bootham Crescent is probably the stadium I’ve visited most. Childhood summer holidays in York (cue ‘kids these days’) usually coincided with a trip there; my 20s were spent living in Leeds, and a Saturday trip to watch the Minstermen when the lads weren’t playing was a guaranteed good day out. And, of course, for a while under Reidy we were frequent pre-season visitors ourselves.
The ground was a short walk from the city centre, surrounded by good pubs (maybe a factor in Reid’s willingness for a summer evening trip) and was a pretty friendly place to go.
Well, at least it was most of the time.
On this day in 1988, a midweek trip to York was memorable.
The 1987-88 season was in full swing, and second-placed Sunderland were ultimately heading towards an immediate return to Division Two. Under the stewardship of ex-York boss Denis Smith, the team was marshalled at the back by ex-York defender John MacPhail, while up front, ex-York striker Marco Gabbiadini was scoring by the boatload.
But, on this day 23 years ago, our automatic promotion wasn’t looking by any means a certainty.
With only two wins in the previous ten games, we were looking somewhat jittery, and we headed to Bootham Crescent in need of a win to face a York side doomed at the foot of the table under the stewardship of Bobby Saxton.
In an attempt to inject some new life into the side, Smith had made a couple of attacking signings as deadline day approached. Wingers Doug Maguire and Colin Pascoe arrived; the former on loan from Celtic, the latter signed permanently from Swansea. Moves fell at the final hurdle for QPR striker John Byrne (the clubs had agreed a fee and Byrne had agreed terms, but couldn’t reach agreement over a settlement with QPR) and Coventry’s ex-Sunderland star Nick Pickering, who despite being impressed with Smith wasn’t prepared to drop into Division Three (“It’s the hardest decision I’ve had to make, but I’m out of contract in the summer and if Sunderland come back in for me I’d certainly be interested.”)
Maguire had impressed in a midweek reserves fixture at Roker Park against a strong Liverpool side featuring Jan Molby, with the 20-year-old Scottish winger’s ‘blistering touchline runs and outstanding close control’ prompting Denis Smith to throw him in at the deep end against York.
Pascoe, meanwhile, was signed with only minutes to spare, after Smith himself drove from Wearside to Swansea to collect the papers bearing the Welshman’s signature, before delivering them personally to the Football League HQ at Lytham St Annes. Faxed documentation, in 1988, wasn’t trusted. After only just arriving on Wearside, Pascoe was named on the bench.
Sunderland: Hesford, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola, Maguire, Owers, Doyle, Armstrong, Gates, Gabbiadini.
With over 5000 away supporters in a sub 9000 crowd (although the ‘real crowd’ would have been far more) – and the former York connections in the Sunderland set up adding unneeded spice – it was an afternoon of mayhem and ultimately one to forget.
Play was halted midway through the first half as around 150 Sunderland supporters, who were caged in by some temporary fencing, spilled onto the field, seeking to escape the overcrowded conditions of the main stand. Things got heated as the police and stewards tried to force fans into a previously empty seating area in another stand – York secretary Keith Usher, who’d previously been a police officer himself, was chinned. “One of them took a swing at me – I don’t know why. It was an appalling exhibition,” he later said.
On the field, things weren’t going to plan, either and on 37 York went ahead through Ian Helliwell, who cut in from the left and squirmed a shot past Iain Hesford.
Sunderland had their chances but failed to equalise, and on 75 Dale Banton headed a second.
Maguire had failed to replicate the form he’d shown in his reserves outing, and had been hooked at half time, replaced by fellow debutant Pascoe. The Welshman got a goal back with seven minutes remaining, neatly finishing with his left foot into the keeper’s bottom right hand corner, but York clung on to what was one of only eight wins for them all season.
On the final whistle, hundreds of fans invaded the pitch, resulting in 32 arrests and a destroyed goal. They were horrible scenes that were unfortunately not too uncommon at the time, and prompted both Denis Smith and Bob Murray to come onto the field to remonstrate with supporters.
It was Sunderland fans’ second blemish of the season – we’d earned rebuke after the game at Bloomfield Road against Blackpool – and the threat of away fans being banned loomed large.
In his book, Just One of Seven, Denis Smith said:
This game at York caused problems, I was worried because I knew how many of our supporters would try to make the short trip down to get in. They’d still got fences up at this point – although there were the ones which had been installed when I was there and I knew they had releases on so you could drop the fences forward. I had been conscious for years that fences could cause potentially grave problems akin to those we’d seen at Bradford and Heysel where supporters could not get out of crowded areas, and would sadly take so many lives at Hillsborough just over a year later.
The only thing was that York chairman Michael Sinclair wasn’t happy at some of my comments as he maintained I’d ‘whipped up a frenzy’ and that I was intent on causing trouble. But I didn’t see it that way. I merely thought they wouldn’t be able to cope with all of our fans, which might lead to some kind of incident.
Obviously because I was coming back with Sunderland, along with Marco, Viv [Busby] and Malcolm [Crosby], there was a certain amount of tension surrounding the game. Among the 9,000 crowd there were people intent on causing trouble and i remember some of them getting onto the pitch and threatening me. There didn’t seem to be anything more than straight anger thought, so I chose not to react.
On the field, at least, things picked up considerably – the remaining eight games saw Smith’s team accumulate 21 points, the only reverse being a 1-0 home defeat to Bristol City, and we surged to the title.
As for the two debutants, goalscorer Pascoe went on to become a staple in the Sunderland team for the next few years. A hardworking, skillful and inventive player, Pascoe could always be relied upon to provide an attacking threat from an advanced wide midfield position.
As for Maguire, he headed back to Celtic with that solitary half of football in a Sunderland shirt to show for his efforts. He joined Coventry on a permanent deal during the following pre-season, but only managed a handful of games for the Sky Blues before heading back north of the border to play for Queen of the South, Stranraer and Albion Rovers, where he managed to once score a hat-trick of penalties.