As we left the 1980s behind, Sunderland began the 1990s in decent shape. Denis Smith had successfully negotiated our drop to the Third Division as more of a blip than a complete disaster and – and he wasn’t settling for just a Second Division return.
Despite going down 3-2 at Hull City in Barclays League Division Two on New Year’s Day 1990, we sat 3rd in the table, five points behind Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United in 2nd and seven behind Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United who topped the table.
But Denis Smith’s side had hit a slump as we entered the festive season, with a run of only one win in the previous six league games that was interspersed with victories in what was quickly becoming a League Cup campaign that was getting interesting, especially after Ian Porterfield’s Reading knocked us out of the FA Cup at the third round stage as January began.
The path to the quarter-final had involved a fairly comfortable introduction as we swatted aside Ray Lewington’s Third Division Fulham in the first round, and followed that up with victories over Bournemouth and Exeter City, both courtesy of a replay. (The latter of which involved an interesting trip that involved a brush with the law where more details can be found here.)
So cup fever was beginning to kick-in and a crowd of close to 30,000 was expected to see if we could advance beyond the quarter-final of the competition for only the third time since the competition began in 1961.
Funds were tight at the club at this time, with Denis Smith having to perform miracles with one hand behind his back, and a carrot hanging over the tie was a potential £250,000 that the club would receive if they could make it past John Sillett’s Coventry City from the First Division.
It wasn’t just the fans who were building the game up, but it seemed the players and the manager himself was predicting a cracker at Roker Park under the floodlights as Denis Smith spoke ahead of kick-off:
It should be a cracking game. The place should be jumping and we have to take advantage of the situation. Only Spurs of the recognised big clubs remain and so we have a genuine chance in a two-legged semi-final if we get through.
Paul Bracewell also spoke in the build-up and it was obvious from the words of the ex-Everton midfielder that confidence in the young squad was high:
This side is capable of getting to Wembley. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say we’ll win, but, if we get through tonight, we could take anyone on home and away over two legs. From the club’s point of view that would be tremendous in terms of revenue as much as anything else and we’ve already proved this season that we’re capable of winning difficult games and winning them well.
In between Sunderland’s capitulation at Elm Park in the FA Cup and the meeting with Sky Blues, there was a small matter of a trip to Bruce Rioch’s struggling Middlesbrough, which Sunderland lost 3-0.
In a game that future Sunderland striker Peter Davenport opened the scoring, Smith opted to switch to a sweeper system and on the evidence of the performance – and ultimately the result – there was an expectation that we would revert back to a back-four. But, this would mean that Gary Bennett would need to be fit and in the weeks prior had been struggling to shake off a knee injury.
Once Denis Smith’s line-up to face Coventry City had been announced, the surprise didn’t come from the fact Gary Bennett made the starting XI and we moved to our usual 4-4-2, but that there was a shock recall for Tim Carter in goal, and Tony Norman was “sensationally axed”. The Welsh international had conceded 13 goals in the previous six games and the 3-0 defeat on Teesside seemed to be the final straw for the Sunderland manager.
Once the action started, it was described as a “full-blooded affair” which certainly wasn’t free of incident, but just that none of those incidents really involved goal-mouth action, with the first shot not coming until the 66th minute.
But it was two minutes before that shot that the game erupted into life.
As the ball appeared to be drifting out of play near the halfway line, a player who constantly played the role of pantomime villain whenever he took the field, David Speedie, aimed a clear kick at Gary Bennett’s strapped up knee which had been causing the 28-year-old defender issues. And this resulted in Bennett seeing red in more ways than one.
Firstly, the Sunderland captain grabbed the Scottish international around the throat and proceeded to almost give the Clock Stand paddock a chance to aim a few digs at the Coventry City striker as they almost went over the advertising hoardings and into the crowd.
Players from both sides entered the scene and it took a while for things to calm down, but when the dust settled, both players were shown the red card. Gary Bennett duly marched off towards the tunnel on the opposite side of the pitch, but David Speedie appeared to refuse to go. Coventry captain Trevor Peake was required to have a word with Speedie so he would leave the field and play could resume.
The dismissal seemed to calm the game down, and with the sting taken out of the game it was perhaps inevitable that the game would remain goalless and we would head to Highfield Road for a replay.
After the final whistle, all the questions and comments were about the clash between Bennett and Speedie, with John Sillett suggesting it had spoilt a smashing cup-tie, and Denis Smith was clearly not happy with his skipper for the evening:
I did not get a clear view of the incident but Bennett was silly to retaliate. Perhaps it was a heat-of-the-moment reaction but I will not tolerate such actions.
It wasn’t the only tie to go to a replay, when the draw was made for the semi-final the following day, Sunderland or Coventry were drawn to face either Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest or a Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker inspired Tottenham Hotspur.
Wednesday 17th January, 1990
League Cup Quarter-Final
Sunderland 0-0 Coventry City
[Gary Bennett & David Speedie sent-off 64’]
Sunderland: Carter, Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Hardyman, Owers, Bracewell, Armstrong, Pascoe, Gates (Agboola), Gabbiadini (Hauser)
Coventry City: Ogrizovic, Borrows, Peake, Billing, Dobson, Gynn, McGrath, Speedie, Smith, Livingstone, Regis Substitutes not used: Kilcline, MacDonald