Denis Smith had spent all summer trying to bolster the team that had finished mid-table in Division Two the previous time around – the arrival of Paul Hardyman from Portsmouth for a tribunal-decided £130,000 the only pre-season incoming of note.
Midfield needed reinforcement, and Shrewsbury’s Bernard McNally had been linked all summer, but to no avail. Money, as always under Bob Murray, was tight.
The season started with our new full-back the only recruit, and a 2-0 opening day win over Ossie Ardiles’ Swindon was followed by an unfortunate 4-2 midweek reversal at home to Ipswich a few days later.
All eyes immediately turned to the following fixture, a home league game against Middlesbrough, who, like Newcastle, had just been relegated from the top flight.
Interest in the Sunday high-noon meeting was heightened by the arrival of 27-year-old Paul Bracewell from Everton in the lead up to the game. Bracewell, who’d started the FA Cup Final only a couple of months earlier, had been allowed to leave Goodison in search of first-team football – the emergence of Stuart McCall, who’d knocked in a double against Liverpool at Wembley after replacing Bracewell being a significant factor. Bracewell, having pretty much missed two seasons through injury, was understandably reluctant to spend any further time on the sidelines unnecessarily.
Denis Smith knew Bracewell from Stoke, while the midfielder was very familiar with Roker Park, anyway, having played for Alan Durban during the 1983-84 season, before Len Ashurst cashed in on him.
Upon his Roker return, Bracewell said:
I’ve never played in the Second Division before, but I was quite impressed with the pace of the Ipswich game.
I’ll have no trouble standing up to it. People keep going on about my injuries, but I played 30 games for Everton last season so there are no worries there.
At this stage of the season it’s all about getting games under my belt.
While Bracewell was attracting headlines from a Wearside perspective, it was Gary Pallister attracting them from the Boro side of things. The 24-year-old defender had been capped by England, and was attracting serious attention from Manchester United. Alex Ferguson had a few big-money offers turned down, and showed no signs of relenting in his pursuit of the centre back.
In fact, this was to be Pallister’s last game for Middlesbrough. A £2.3m deal, the highest transfer fee ever between two British clubs, was finalised only days after the game. Incidentally, it was also the second-highest fee ever paid by a British club (only the transfer of Ian Rush from Juventus to Liverpool the previous summer topped it).
So intrigue was high at a bright and warm Roker Park as local referee George Courtney took charge of the game. Short-sleeved supporters (some of whom were carrying inflatable black cats, as the club shop cashed in on the ‘inflatables’ trend sweeping English football) gathered to watch a Sunderland team for whom Bracewell was named in the starting XI, alongside captain Gary Bennett who was returning from injury.
An end-to-end entertaining game was played out at a good pace and a white hot atmosphere, and Sunderland, kicking towards the Roker End, almost opening the scoring: Marco Gabbiadini being denied by a superb save from Boro keeper Kevin Poole, while Gary Bennett’s header from a Bracewell cross narrowly went over.
But, against the run of play, it was Middlesbrough that struck first – Bernie Slaven striking low past Tony Norman after holding off Bennett and Reuben Agboola.
Future Sunderland striker Peter Davenport almost extended Boro’s lead on two occasions, but put wide at the first attempt and failed to beat Norman at the second; a Pascoe free kick almost caught out Poole at the other.
Half time came and went with Boro holding the lead, but moments into the second half Bennett got the equaliser, stabbing home after good work from Pascoe and Gabbiadini. 1-1, and Roker Park was in full volume.
Middlesbrough went close to restoring the lead, Slaven hit the bar and Ripley had an effort cleared off the line by goalscorer Bennett, before it was Sunderland’s turn to go close – Mowbray denying Gates on the line and Armstrong’s free-kick hitting the crossbar.
Davenport went close again with 15 minutes remaining, Norman saving from the former England striker, before Sunderland got the goal Roker Park was craving.
A lovely move involving Pascoe and Gates saw the Welsh international drive past Poole from close range to seal victory.
After three seasons without a derby of any description (during which time we’d been in Division Three and both our neighbours had been in the top flight), victory was very, very sweet indeed.
- Benno and Davenport compete for the ball Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Bracewell can only watch on as Davenport gets a shot away Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Norman claims a high ball Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Bennett keeps a close eye on Bernie Slaven Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- New signing Hardyman attempts to block Ripley’s cross Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Bracewell glides past Tony Mowbray Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Sunderland crowd out Ripley Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Agboola in for the tackle Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Pascoe storms forward Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Benno on one of his trademark runs from the back Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Marco takes on Mowbray Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
- Summer attire Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images