The investigation had been rumbling on in the background throughout the whole season, punishments had been handed down, but did anyone really believe that it would really result in tough action and that Sunderland would benefit?
As the news broke on this day 31 years ago - on teletext, on the radio, on TV, in the papers - that Denis Smith’s Sunderland would actually be playing in Division One next season, it all felt quite surreal.
At the League Management Committee hearing on 6th June 1990, Swindon had been relegated from the first to the third division after their Chairman, Gary Herbert, admitted 36 charges dating back over a five year period, all but one involving illegal payments to players.
Former Manager Lou Macari, was fined £1,000 for betting on his own side to loose an FA Cup tie against Newcastle. Days later, current manager Ossie Ardiles was also charged in relation to allegedly distributing £5,000 in cash bonuses in the Robins’ dressing room.
Swindon appealed the decision, and with the game still reeling from the catastrophe of Hillsborough and in the midst of a World Cup, nobody knew for certain what the outcome would be.
The PFA backed Swindon’s appeal, and much was made of the “unfair” punishment being imposed on innocent Swindon fans and their members (who, it should be remembered, had taken the illegal payments), with the gold-plated, sanctimonious tones of union boss Gordon Taylor imploring the authorities to have pity on the cheating club:
The penalty is the worst of all options which the League could have chosen. Financial breaches deserve financial penalties. If the League were to relegate every club who have breached regulations there would be no teams left in Division One! Such a sentence will continue to alienate the football public and further erode football’s credibility.
It sparked a scramble for the vacant spot in the top flight for 1990-91. Ron Atkinson, Sheffield Wednesday boss, claimed that his side should avoid relegation from Division 1 and for a long time this seemed to be the default position of the football establishment.
Newcastle United spuriously claimed that, despite having been well beaten in the playoff semi-finals by Sunderland, their third place finish in Division 2 should see them promoted instead.
When the League Committee’ final decision came - that Swindon’s demotion would be upheld and that it would be the Roker Park club who would rightly take their place, midfielder Gary Owers gave his reaction to the Chronicle:
It had gone right out of my mind. I had resigned myself to Sheffield Wednesday staying up. I won’t celebrate until everything is 100 per cent certain, although I can’t see the situation changing again. On their performance against us, Swindon would have done well in the top flight and I feel very sorry for their players. They were brilliant on the day and beat us fair and square. But when the fixture list comes out, everyone will forget the manner of our promotion. It is now a case of looking forwards rather than back.
Look North interview Benno & Brace about Sunderland's 1990 promotion at a new club shop launch ⚪ pic.twitter.com/iMaTWdiAhb— Roker Retro ⚪ (@rokerretro) June 12, 2021
There was already talk of Denis Smith being handed a cool £1 million windfall from increased TV and gate revenues, with Spurs’ Paul Walsh identified as a replacement for Eric Gates who’d been released on a free at the beginning of the month. But this excitement was tempered by the club’s need to invest in meeting the requirements of the Taylor Report into stadium safety.
As it was, Kevin Ball, Brian Mooney and Peter Davenport were purchased for a combined £875,000 over the summer and in preparation for Sunderland’s first season back at the top in five years. In the end, it wasn’t quite enough.