Sunderland’s run of home games to start to the 1990-91 season was about as tough as you could get.
Back in the top-flight after an absence of five seasons, the fixture list at Roker Park saw us face Spurs (Gazza and Lineker, fresh from Italia 90), Manchester United (FA Cup holders and on the verge of Fergie greatness), Everton (who’d finished a respectable sixth) and reigning champions, Liverpool.
On this day 31 years ago, we were preparing to face the fourth of that quartet, and in truth, we were fancying our chances. And why not? We’d emerged from the opening three home games unbeaten: two draws and a famous Gary Bennett-inspired win over Manchester United helping us to six points from six games start to the season. A 1-0 home reverse to Bristol City in the League Cup being the only blot on the Roker copybook so far.
The home crowds had received a natural boost. Over 30,000 had packed into the old ground for the Spurs game, the returning England stars boosting the gate (if you weren’t around in those days it’s hard to appreciate the level of interest in watching Paul Gascoigne around this time – he was spectacularly good), while ahead of the Liverpool game another 30,000-plus gate was anticipated.
Liverpool were the team of the era. Kenny Dalglish had taken over the legacies of Bill Shankley, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, and moulded a team that was respected across the country (although sometimes begrudgingly). It was a case that they were that good, many people wanted to see them get beat – the 1988 FA Cup Final being a case in point.
Liverpool had gotten the season off to a rather predictable start – six wins from six – and a seventh successive win would set a club record for their best-ever start to a season.
Added to the fact Sunderland hadn’t beaten Liverpool at Roker Park since 1958, and hadn’t netted a home goal against them since 1980, the task facing the side was ominous.
While Liverpool had household names such as Grobbelaar, Whelan, Houghton, Beardsley, Rush, Barnes and McMahon in their line up, Sunderland’s star attraction came in the shape of 22-year-old Marco Gabbiadini, supported by former England international Paul Bracewell.
Of the team that faced Liverpool, only Bracewell and new signing Peter Davenport had any extensive top-flight experience – Gary Bennett had played a single season in the first division in 1984-85, while John Kay and Kevin Ball had made a few First Division appearances while at Wimbledon and Portsmouth respectively.
Making his first start of the season – and only his ninth league start in three seasons for the club – was Tony Cullen. A pacy, direct winger, Cullen had been a junior at Newcastle before heading south of the Tyne, and was brought into the team on the right flank – Gary Owers playing on the left to counteract Liverpool’s majestic attacking full back Steve Nicol. It was probably the perfect birthday present for Tony – coming on the eve of his 21st birthday.
Ahead of the game, Denis Smith said:
Liverpool are one of the best teams in the world. They are possibly the best team in Europe, but haven’t had the chance to prove it [Liverpool were banned from Europe after Heysel].
However, they will get beat at some stage. I don’t see any reason why we can’t be the team to end their run.
One of Liverpool’s great strengths is their workrate, We have to match that and go above it to have a chance.
Hopefully we have learned a lesson from our performance against Bristol City. It was a poor display and basically unprofessional.
I’m still looking for my first win over Liverpool either as a player or a manager, although we did get two good 1-1 draws with them in the FA Cup fifth round during my time at York City. Unfortunately we lost 7-0 and 3-1 in the replays.
And when it comes to halting record-breaking runs, I still remember my winning goal for Stoke City that ended Leeds United’s sequence of 29 games unbeaten.
Unfortunately, despite a wholehearted performance, Sunderland never looked like causing the Reds a serious problem.
Ray Houghton’s goal shortly before half time came after a typically flowing move, and proved to be the only goal of the game.
Headers from Bracewell and Ball were the closest Sunderland came, while Liverpool’s determination to score ‘perfect’ goals kept the scoreline down.
There was a predictable gulf in class, but in truth, there was a lot to be positive about. Newspaper reports post-game said the home side, at the very least, would avoid relegation, and with the addition of a left back and a quality midfielder would hold their own with most teams in the division.
And, if it hadn’t been for injuries, we’d have done so.