By the summer of 1994, Gordon Armstrong’s time at Roker had included three relegations, two promotions, and the club reached two major cup finals, but other than that it was pretty quiet.
The Newcastle-born midfielder was handed his debut by Len Ashurst exactly a month after our defeat at the hands of Norwich City in the League Cup final and around three months before his 18th birthday.
It would come at the Hawthorns in a 1-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion as we fought off a seemingly inevitable relegation from the Canon League Division One, and as Lawrie McMenemy took over and saw us relegated to Division Three, Armstrong progressed to becoming a first team regular.
During the 1986-87 season, as we dropped to the third tier for the first time, Armstrong made 46 appearances despite only turning 20-years-old in the summer of 1987.
Denis Smith arrived from York City to take the club back up the football league ladder and the likes of Armstrong and Owers were just two of a whole host of young players who came through the youth setup to play major roles in the clubs restoration to, eventually, the top flight.
To emphasise this point, during the 1989-90 season, Gary Owers and Gordon Armstrong made a combined 115 appearances, with Armstrong making a staggering 59 of them which is still a club record.
That season was also pretty special for Armstrong, having grew up a Sunderland fan in Newcastle, he was able to play a part in our 2-0 win at St James’ Park in the second leg of the play-off semi-final after a goalless draw at Roker.
Our subsequent year in the First Division would be his last crack at the top flight, despite him only turning 24-years-old in the summer following our confirmed relegation at Maine Road, in a season that saw Armstrong contribute six goals in Barclays Division One.
Then, during a turbulent few years there was a brief ray of light that saw us reach our first FA Cup final since 1973. Malcolm Crosby had replaced Denis Smith and despite being generally crap in Division Two, we seemed to keep pulling out the performances in the cup and in the quarter-final it was a case of “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.
We’d taken Chelsea back to Roker courtesy of a late equaliser at Stamford Bridge, and in the replay the roles were reversed when Dennis Wise cancelled out Peter Davenport’s opener with only five minutes left on the clock. The game had been played at a pretty relentless pace in a typical cup game under the floodlights at Roker Park and there was a feeling we’d struggle to go again.
However, with two minutes left on the clock, Brian Atkinson arrowed a corner from where the Roker End met the Clock Stand and found Armstrong’s head. He met the ball around the penalty spot, and despite the distance the ball found it’s way into the far corner, past the dive of Dave Beasant.
What a moment and what a night, in what turned out to be Sunderland’s last ever victory at Roker Park in the FA Cup.
Two years later, after a season that began with rare spending spree under Terry Butcher, and ended with Mick Buxton achieving mid-table mediocrity, FC Porto rolled into town to celebrate the start of Gordon Armstrong’s testimonial year.
Booby Robson had been appointed the new manager of the Portuguese club in January 1994 and had steered them to runners-up in the Primeira Liga and the semi-final of the Champions League in his first four months at the club.
There were some big names in the squad Robson put out for the friendly at Roker - Vitor Baia, who later joined Barcelona, was between the sticks, and midfielder Emerson, who later joined Middlesbrough was in the middle of the park to name just two.
Maybe as a sign of the type of exhibition game it was, Mick Buxton’s finished as 2-0 winners, which could have been more if Phil Gray had converted a penalty early in the second half. Kevin Ball put us ahead after five minutes and Don Goodman converted a penalty to make it two with fifteen minutes left.
In the two years following Armstrong’s testimonial, the midfielder only made 21 appearances for Sunderland, where 8 came off the bench as he struggled with injuries and went out on loan to Bristol City and Northampton Town during Peter Reid’s arrival and resulting title winning side of 1995-96.
The summer of celebration that followed promotion to the Premier League was Gordon Armstrong’s time to leave Roker when he signed for Bury, after scoring 61 goals in 416 appearances putting him 7th on the clubs all-time list - that’s some record.
Sunderland: Norman (Chamberlain), Martin Gray, Melville, Ord, Kubicki, Atkinson (Russell), Ball, Ferguson (Bennett), Armstrong (Michael Gray), Goodman, Phil Gray
FC Porto: Baia, Pinto (N’tsunda), Bandeirinha (Paz), Aloisio, Nascimento, Filipe, Secretario, Emerson (Santos), Paciencia (Jorge), Barros (Drulovic), Folha (Latapy)