It was the most important derby since the first time the two sides met in Roker Park’s inaugural season in 1898-99.
It was like a north-east double helix, where we were on the ascendancy, the mags were on a downward trajectory, and this was a clash that had the potential to change that course for both clubs.
Denis Smith had taken charge at Roker as the club hit the lowest point we’d ever stooped to in the 108 years prior, as we dropped to Division Three for the first time. Lawrie McMenemy was the architect, and even the return of the messiah couldn’t save us. Bob Stokoe could only win two of his seven league games before we eventually lost to Gillingham in the newly introduced play-offs.
We lost over two legs which ended 6-6 after Gillingham scored after 3 minutes of extra-time in the second leg, at Roker Park. We lost on away goals.
Enter Denis Smith from York City, who immediately took the club by the scruff of the neck. We won the championship in his first season before consolidating our Division Two status in his second season as we finished a respectable 11th.
As Denis Smith was busy improving his young side in the second tier, the mags were busy returning to the second tier - from the top flight. They had finished bottom of Division One in 1988-89, in the end 10 points from safety and were joined by West Ham United and Middlesbrough.
This immediately set up the narrative of the 1989-90 season in the north-east before a ball was kicked. We hadn’t been in the same division for four years since we were relegated from the First Division in 1984-85 - and both sets of fans were chomping at the bit.
This would have been the case regardless of the expectation of the two clubs, but in the build-up to this one, both were eyeing promotion to the top flight. Newcastle manager Jim Smith had pinned all his hopes on a new strike force who he signed in the summer ahead of the new campaign when he signed Mark McGhee from Celtic and Mick Quinn from Portsmouth for £680,000.
Denis Smith meanwhile, having his purse strings tightened by Bob Murray, strengthened by signing Paul Hardyman from Portsmouth for £130,000 and Paul Bracewell from Everton £250,000. But more importantly perhaps, the likes of Gary Owers, Gordon Armstrong and of course, Marco Gabbiadini, were a year older and a year wiser after a season in Division Two under their belts.
From the opening day of the season both clubs we constantly in and around the top six places, taking turns to suffer dips of form and then finding it again to confirm a top-six berth. In the build-up to the final regulation fixture of the season, Sunderland were confirmed a play-off place but Newcastle were still in with a shout of the top two.
A 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough (which meant Boro’ stayed up) on the last day of the season however, meant they had to settle for the play-offs. As everyone then looked at the table after Sunderland had been beaten by Oldham at Roker, the Football Association breathed a deep sigh of relief, as they realised there was no chance of the north-east descending on the capital for a bank holiday weekend.
For the first time in the play-offs, the finals for all three divisions were at Wembley on the bank holiday weekend. And because Newcastle finished 3rd in the table, and we dropped from 4th to 6th after the final round of fixtures, we'd meet them in the semi-finals. Everything was at stake.
After two tight, cagey draws in the two league games that season, it was maybe no surprise that the first leg was a battle. Jim Smith surprised many by changing his tactics that he’d deployed throughout the season and placed Bjorn Kristensen in front of the back four. He was concerned about the Gates-Gabbiadini combination we had up top and planned accordingly.
The game at Roker was tackle after tackle, breakneck speed, but without too much goalmouth action - until the last minute. A penalty was awarded at the Fulwell End after a foul on Marco, and despite being pretty successful from the spot throughout the season, Paul Hardyman struck the ball straight at goalkeeper John Burridge.
A frustrated Hardyman then saw the red mist and attempted to launch the Newcastle goalkeeper into orbit. He nearly succeeded as well, but only resulted in giving Denis Smith a headache ahead of the second leg as the referee quite rightly showed Hardyman a red card, which meant he was out of the second leg and the final should we get there.
When the final whistle went only moments later, the Newcastle fans and the players celebrated as if they were taking a lead into the second leg at St James’ Park, which was scheduled three days later. The local media in the aftermath were almost declaring the second leg a foregone conclusion and were already discussing who Newcastle would play at Wembley - even though it remained 0-0 in the tie.
As Denis Smith commented on our own Roker Rapport podcast, we had one of the best away records in the country that year and his preparation began as soon as the final whistle went at Roker Park...
It was massively important to get them to believe they could go there and win and there was no reason why they couldn’t. The pressure was all on Newcastle and it was off us because everyone was expecting Newcastle to win, so great from our point of view. Let’s prove them wrong and go and enjoy it.
We spoke with them and worked with them and said ok, this is how we’re going to do it, we’re going to make it difficult for them, but we’ve got Gates and Gabbiadini up front. You go away from home knowing you have the possibility of scoring.
There was also discussion about who would replace Paul Hardyman in the starting XI. Reuben Agboola would be the obvious one to start at left-back, but who would deputise in left midfield as Colin Pascoe was still out injured?
Kieron Brady and Brian Atkinson were the two names on everyone’s lips but in the end there was a major shock when the teams were announced. Despite not starting a game that season up to that point, Warren Hawke got the nod and which was amazing looking back and Denis Smith explained his reasoning to us...
I played Warren Hawke, who hadn’t played that many games, but his workrate and attitude was first class. I talked to the lad and he was a bright intelligent kid who knew what he could do and what his strengths were, and he knew his job on that day was to work his socks off, close everybody down and give 100%. That sounds easy, but to do it with the energy he had was incredible. His workrate was imperative to stop them playing.
Eventually, the game kicked off in the early evening daylight, when County Durham’s own George Courtney blew the whistle to get the game started in the drizzle in front of 32,199 ahead of the 121st Tyne-Wear derby, which was billed as the most important game ever between the two sides.
Newcastle almost took the lead after 8 minutes when McGhee hit the outside of Norman’s post with a left foot shot, but 5 minutes later, it happened.
John Kay threw a long throw down the line on the right hand side to Gabbiadini, who flicked it over his own head right into the path of Gary Owers which nobody in black and white had bothered to track.
Owers scissor-kicked the ball to the near post where Eric Gates was steaming into the six yard box to meet the ball to give us an early lead. The Sunderland fans at the other end of the ground were a sea of arms and legs.
The eleven players sent out that night were unbelievable. Nothing was getting past Norman in goal, Bennett and MacPhail didn’t give the divisions top scoring partnership a sniff, Bracewell bossed the midfield with Owers, Armstrong and Hawke doing all the running and our front two looked dangerous each time we got into the final third.
John Kay had most of the home end spilling onto the pitch to get at him in the first half when he wiped out Billy Askew, but once they realised who it was, they returned to the stand in an orderly fashion.
It was Sunderland who looked most likely to score next and with five minutes remaining, our top scorer for the season, Marco Gabbiadini, bagged his 26th of the season in all competitions.
Warren Hawke, who was still full of running in the later stages, picked up the ball on the halfway line on our left hand side and found Gabbiadini in the middle of the pitch. He was still 20 yards from the edge of the box but immediately charged at the Newcastle back four before laying the ball off to Gates.
The ex-Ipswich man stopped the ball dead with his first touch, and with his second, pulled off what he had on so many occasions over the previous three years, by slotting the ball back into Gabbiadini’s path inside the box so perfectly that Marco didn’t have to take a touch. With his first touch, he stabbed the ball with his left foot straight into the far corner past John Burridge. What a moment. Never to be forgotten.
Watching the scenes in the away end just makes you want to be there. In there somewhere was a young Craig Russell, who went on to make his debut for the club a couple of years later. There won’t be many occasions when the derby will have so much riding on it and for those reading this who were there, I will be eternally envious.
As much as the game looked like it was over as a contest, the home crowd had other ideas. When the game restarted after Marco’s goal, the home stands began to empty onto the pitch in an effort to get the game abandoned. I guarantee, you will never see so many pairs of white jeans on a muddy patch of grass anywhere.
Northumbria’s finest entered the field to stem the tide and players were ushered off the pitch back to the dressing rooms. The initial concern that the game would be abandoned was immediately calmed by the strong leadership of referee George Courtney who told both sides that the game would be finished - even if they had to stay all night.
After a brief stoppage, the pitch was cleared, and the game was restarted with a drop ball between Roy Aitken and Paul Bracewell. For the remaining five minutes, the Newcastle players knew it was a lost cause and our players were more concerned with getting into a position that was in sprinting distance of safety with the home fans at the ready to return to the pitch on the sound of the final whistle.
It eventually came and the celebration ran long into the night. Probably the most important tie between the two sides in our long histories - and we won it.
As we started our adventure in the First Division the following season, there was a banner at our first home game that read...
THERE ARE SOME PEOPLE ON THE PITCH, THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER.
IT IS NOW!
NEWCASTLE UNITED 0 SUNDERLAND 2
Newcastle United: Burridge, Bradshaw (Dillon), Anderson, Scott, Stimson, Kristensen, Brock, Aitken, Askew (O’Brien), Quinn, McGhee
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola, Owers, Bracewell, Armstrong, Hawke, Gates, Gabbiadini Substitutes not used: Heathcote, Hauser