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On This Day (15 August 1987) - Sunderland’s first-ever third-tier game ends in victory

3,000 Mackems made their way to Griffin Park for Sunderland’s first-ever game in Division 3, and they didn’t leave London disappointed.

A very young Gary Owers made his debut in this match


Brentford: Phillips, Joseph, Murray, Millen, Lee, Priddle (Caroll ‘76), Feeley, Hinton, Cooke, Blissett, Holloway. Sub not used: Bates.

Sunderland: Hardwick, Kay, Agboola, Bennett, MacPhail, Armstrong, Lemon, Proctor, Bertschin, Gates (Moore ‘82), Owers (Gray ‘70).

After over 100 years in the top two flights of the English game, the fallen giants of Sunderland AFC found themselves playing their first-ever Division Three match on hot summer’s afternoon Griffin Park in west London.

The crowd of over 12,000 was Brentford FC’s largest in four seasons, with a quarter of that number having travelled down from the north to witness what was perhaps the least glamorous fixture in our illustrious history. We are, and always have been, gluttons for punishment.

Sunderland, who had appointed York City manager and former Stoke City hard-man Denis Smith as manager in the summer, had a new-look side and gave debuts to goalkeeper Steve Hardwick, Scottish central defender John MacPhail, local youngster Gary Owers and one John Kay – very possibly the hardest man ever to don a red and white shirt.

Steve Perryman’s Brentford side had Jamie Murray in defence, who’d played one game on loan at Sunderland in 1984, alongside the formidable Roger Joseph, veteran former Chelsea and Spurs midfielder Colin Lee making his debut, a 21-year-old Andy Sinton on one wing and future Blackpool manager Ian Holloway on the other.

Butter wouldn't melt... a young John Kay pictured in 1987

It was a tight affair, the only chances of the first half falling to Sinton, the first following Lee’s long throw-in and the second a shot for 20 yards, but Hardwick fielded both efforts comfortably and the match was all square at the break.

Sunderland upped the ante in the second half, and Keith Bertschin scored the only goal three minutes after the restart in a game that failed to produce many chances. Paul Lemon shook off the attention of Murray on the right-wing and crossed for former Stoke City man to head the ball home.

Eric Gates was a constant thorn in the home team’s side, who tired, but they had their chances to equalise through Gary Blissett and Sinton. The youngster Owers would be withdrawn with cramp on 70 minutes, replaced by old-timer Frank Gray, and Smith later admitted he wouldn’t be too bothered if we won every game that season in the same way if it meant we bounced back at the first time of asking.

In an interview with Paul Hetherington of The Newcastle Journal, Smith was full of praise for both the travelling support and his new players.

That result has done dressing room morale the world of good. The players here have had a lot of flak and need a lift. We are a long way from having the finished article, but the attitude of the players is what I want. When you have 3,000 supporters travelling a long distance for an away match, they deserve to be rewarded for a tremendous turnout. The players did that with the way they worked and that’s all I can ask

The Bees boss, Perryman, however, wasn’t happy with the performance of his side, telling their local paper, The Leader:

I was disappointed with the performance. I would have been happier if we had lost by more goals and played better.

The result got Sunderland off to a great start to a league campaign that would ultimately prove triumphant and, indeed, see the development of several young players who would be instrumental in the relative success of promotion to the top flight and an FA Cup Final in the early 1990s.


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