In truth, Sunderland’s top-flight survival in 1990-91 was always going to be a tough challenge.
After all, it was only two years since we gained promotion from the Third Division, and a number of the squad who’d helped us get promotion were still around – Gabbiadini, Armstrong, Kay, Owers and Bennett among them.
We’d belatedly and somewhat unexpectedly been promoted after Swindon’s financial misdemeanours rendered our play-off final defeat to the Robins null and void, but despite promotion Denis Smith had only been given a small sum to spend to bring in Peter Davenport – to replace Eric Gates – and Kevin Ball, who took John MacPhail’s place in the team.
While the season started well enough – we were eighth after defeating Manchester United at home – we were dragged towards the bottom of the table as autumn was turning into winter. And by the time the final strains of Auld Lang Syne were warbling across Wearside we were in 19th position.
This was the first time we’d been in a relegation place all season – with only two teams being relegated due to the top flight being expanded to 22 teams for the 91-92 season.
If ever there was a season to be promoted to Division One...
On New Years Day, a home win over Southampton, courtesy of a Kevin Ball penalty, lifted the lads out of the drop zone, but a defeat to Manchester United (Lee Sharpe, Paul Williams, say no more) had dented that fragile confidence.
Chelsea arrived on Wearside a very different animal to the one they are today. They weren’t a ‘rich’ or top club in those days – in fact, they’d only been promoted a year before we had, but had a good set of players and had only narrowly beaten us at Stamford Bridge (a very different ground to the one which stands there today) 3-2 thanks to a late, and controversial, penalty from Dennis Wise.
Sunderland were hoping to welcome back Davenport, who’d missed the last three games through injury, in place of David Rush, who’d also been suffering with a knock.
Davenport had only one goal in his last eight games, while Gabbiadini was suffering his driest spell in a Sunderland shirt – with no goals in six outings, and had also missed a few games through injury too.
Rush and Warren Hawke had filled in for their more experienced teammates, but Smith was desperate to reunite his first-choice strike pairing.
When you have possible two of the best players at the club missing it makes a big difference.
Peter has been one of our most consistent players this season, and I expect him to be fit.
He has a good understanding with Marco, and as they’ve both been out recently they should now be fresh and raring to go.
When you need results it’s the old heads who will generally get them for you – and that is what we need right now.
Sunderland lined up with Davenport and Gabbiadini up front, while Gary Owers replaced Paul Williams at right back as the team managed without the suspended John Kay who was sidelined for the Peter Haddock Tractor incident a few games earlier.
It was one of those games that could have gone either way, as Bobby Campbell’s Chelsea started with the air of a team wanting to get at their low-confidence opponents early.
Former England striker Kerry Dixon missed a very early sitter, miskicking in front of goal, and then scuffed a shot straight at Tony Norman.
His strike partner Gordon Durie – known as ‘jukebox’ – also forced Norman into action as Chelsea turned the screw.
Sunderland, however, played themselves into the game, as Bracewell started to dictate the midfield. Gabbiadini came close, Dorigo headed Davenport’s effort off the line and keeper Dave Beasant saved well from Armstrong.
As the hour mark approached, Sunderland took the lead after an incisive break from a Chelsea corner - Colin Pascoe heading the ball over Beasant from an Owers cross after great play from Gabbiadini.
The route to the three points wasn’t straightforward, however – a Bennett miskick fell to Durie who failed to score, while a ridiculous goalmouth scramble late on somehow saw Norman’s clean sheet preserved – Kevin Ball’s celebrations with the Fulwell End when Norman eventually managed to secure the ball worth the admission fee alone.
Ball, who’d had a slow start to his Sunderland career, was in superb form, and produced a tremendous tackle on Andy Townsend, while keeper Norman produced a vital save from David Lee as victory was secured against a Chelsea side who finished with 10 men after Durie’s kick out at Hardyman in the final minute was spotted by the ref.
1-0 it finished, and with two home wins in two to begin the new year, it looked as though survival was a distinct probability...
Sunderland 1-0 Chelsea
Roker Park, 20, 038
Goal: Pascoe 59
Sunderland: Norman, Owers, Bennett, Ball, Hardyman, Pascoe, Atkinson, Bracewell, Armstrong, Davenport, Gabbiadini (Rush 89). Sub not used Ord
Chelsea: Beasant, Hall, Cundy, Monkou, Dorigo, Matthew (Bumstead 55), Stuart, Townsend, Le Saux (Lee 75), Durie, Dixon.