The 1989-90 season was a strange one in a lot of respects.
Two years earlier, Denis Smith had come into the club after our first relegation to the third division, and got us up in style at the first attempt.
From recent history, we can appreciate the enormity of that fate even more than we probably ever have done.
A season of Division Two stabilisation followed, mid-table, never threatening either end of the table, and the 1989-90 season saw progression again.
While we briefly flirted with the top two early in the season we were never in serious contention for the automatic promotion places after January, but we were always in with a strong shout of the play-offs, occupying a top six place for the majority of the season.
A young, vibrant side featuring the likes of Gabbiadini, Pascoe, Armstrong, Owers and, latterly, Brady, prompted by the more experienced Gates, Bracewell, Norman, Bennett and MacPhail were enjoyable to watch.
From the devastating days of McMenemy, it seems a rejuvenation, a rebirth.
Going into the final four league fixtures of the season, Leeds and Newcastle were topping the table, the magpies on goal difference ahead of Sheffield Uniter. With 12 points at stake, Sunderland’s automatic chances were very slim indeed, however six teams below us could have overtaken us.
Points were crucial.
Before the game, Smith said:
I would think you are asking a lot for us to make one of the top two automatic promotion places now because we are running out of games.
But our destiny is in our own hands as far as a play of place is concerned.
None of the teams below us can overtake us unless we slip up.
The play offs were still a new concept, and this season was the first that saw the third-sixth placed teams play off for promotion, with the carrot of a Wembley final.
I would say the top three teams should be automatically promoted, but with the play offs we are giving the public what they want, Football has moved with the times, for a change.
So, on face value, everything should have been positive. Pushing for a Division One place after a spell in the doldrums. A young, determined manager who’d proved his worth, and a good, young team.
Yet, the crowd weren’t altogether happy. Throughout the season, there’d been pleas from manager Denis Smith for more folk to turn up at Roker, with crowds struggling to hit 20,000 in the run in (although you’ve got to overlay the socioeconomics of the area at the time over the attendance figures), and Smith was never afraid to issue a potentially inflammatory comment or two.
The supporters have a vital part to play. They are as anxious as we are, and it shows at times – but we need them behind us.
Kieron Brady tried to beat his man twice in the first 10 minutes last week, failed, and was booed. It hardly encourages him to try again.
It only comes from a small section of the crowd, but it’s the people who are queit that we want to hear from.
Heading into our game at home to mid-table Portsmouth, optimism was high – however key men Gary Bennett and Colin Pascoe were missing from the line up, a groin and knee keeping them out, respectively.
Paul Bracewell was back after injury, while Kieron Brady – who’d been dropped from the side that had beaten Oxford 1-0 the previous week after attending a Pet Shop Boys gig – returned to the bench.
Micky Heathcote, a centre half signed from Spennymoor, took Bennett’s place.
Norman, Kay, Heathcote, MacPhail, Agboola, Owers, Bracewell, Armstrong, Hardyman, Gates, Gabbiadini. Subs: Brady, Hawke
Sunderland started the game with the bit between their teeth, and took a well-deserved lead when Armstrong’s looping header from Owers’ floated free-kick beat Alan Knight in the Pompey goal on 33, and we went in at the break a goal to the good.
The second half started in similar fashion, and MacPhail’s volley was cleared off the like by John Beresford, before Eric Gates won a free kick on the edge of Portsmouth’s box. Two Portsmouth players were booked for protesting – after all, Gates was good at ‘winning’ free kicks – and Armstrong stepped up to fire into the net.
Two nil after 52 minutes, and a repeat of the previous season’s 4-0 win over Portsmouth looked to be on the cards.
And it could have been. Gabbiadini hit the side netting when clean through, and a number of other chances were spurned to put the game to bed.
Entering the final ten minutes, however, nerves were jangling. The failure to add a third had turned jubilation to nervous energy, and sub Terry Connor poked home from close range after a cross from Steve Wigley.
With 90 minutes on the clock, and having withstood the oncoming Portsmouth pressure. Heathcote and MacPhail got themselves into a mix up, and Wigley netted an equaliser.
If ever there was a self inflicted loss of points, this was it.
Denis Smith, late to the post match press conference after furiously laying into his players, was asked how he felt after the game:
I’m delighted. I couldn’t be happier for Portsmouth. I love losing points in injury time. It makes my weekend.
After the game, Jeff Brown wrote in The Journal:
The final, fatal, nine minutes were a microcosm of Sunderland’s fortunes over the past three decades, taking in a cluster of near-miss promotion campaigns, last-gasp relegations, and the general feeling that the gods – an aberration in 1973 apart – are against them.
As it was other results had been kind, and the point had widened the gap between Sunderland and 7th placed West Ham. We won our next two, and as the promotion chasing group dropped points left, right and centre, we were up to fourth until the final game of the season, in which we lost at home to Oldham.
That meant a sixth placed finish, and a two legged play-off against that lot up the road, who’d ended up missing out on second spot by a huge five points.
It just goes to show, there are plenty of twists and turns in a promotion race...