It was our first season in our history we’d visited the third tier of English football and, to begin with, we didn’t have it all our own way.
After an opening day victory at Brentford thanks to a Keith Bertschin goal, Denis Smith’s side only won two of the next eight league games and by the end of September, found ourselves sitting 12th in the table.
This was quickly rectified with three straight victories that began with a brace from Marco Gabbiadini giving us all three points against Ray Lewington’s Fulham, where the nine points put us bizarrely top of the table.
Next up was a trip to Blackpool, where we hadn’t played a competitive fixture since 1978, with the incentive of making it four wins in a row for the first time in seven years.
If Denis Smith’s side were to win four in a row, we would have to do so with a mini-injury crises. Gary Bennett was the latest to be ruled out of the reckoning, joining a list that included Gordon Armstrong and Keith Bertschin, as well as Paul Lemon who would have to take his place on the bench without being fully fit to make up the numbers.
In the early stages of the game against Sam Ellis’ Blackpool, it looked likely we would pick up one or two more injuries with the tough tactics deployed by the home side, with Keith Walwyn being the target of the long ball over the top time and time again.
But it was skipper John MacPhail who led the way in stemming the tide and standing up to the tactics deployed by Blackpool as described by Jeff Brown at the time:
But with skipper John MacPhail a calming - and driving - influence, Sunderland slowed things down after the break to run the show their way.
It wasn’t exactly a game for the neutrals or the faint-hearted, and it took until just over the hour-mark for the deadlock to be broken. The opener came from a John Cornforth cross that was met with a diving header from MacPhail to give Sunderland the lead.
Around ten minutes later, it was the same combination again, but only in a slightly different format, when Cornforth was brought down in the area, leading to John Lloyd to point to the spot. As he did so many times during our championship winning season, MacPhail did the business from the spot and put the game beyond doubt and seal the three points.
Following the final whistle, a group of around 200 Sunderland fans climbed the barriers to celebrate with the players on the pitch and as a crossbar was snapped in the festivities, it took Sunderland manager Denis Smith to restore order, with Inspector Stuart Sykes of Blackpool police singing the praises of the former Stoke City defender:
Mr Smith did a very good job. His prompt action took the heat out of the situation. I was on the pitch when it happened. The fans listened to him and then left peacefully. There was no violence, it was all good natured. The Sunderland fans got a bit excited and wanted to congratulate their team.
Blackpool is a holiday resort. Some of the fans had arrived the night before and were in a holiday mood.
he two goals from MacPhail were two of sixteen the central defender scored that season, where eleven were from the spot, ending up only three behind Eric Gates and five behind top scorer for the season Marco Gabbiadini as we strolled to the title.
Saturday 17th October, 1987
Barclays League Division Three
Blackpool 0-2 Sunderland
[MacPhail 63, (pen) 71’]
Sunderland: Hesford, Kay, MacPhail, Agboola, Corner, Owers, Doyle, Cornforth, Atkinson (Gray), Gabbiadini, Gates (Lemon)
Blackpool: Siddall, Davies, Morgan, Matthews, Methven, Walsh, Deary, Madden, Walwyn, McAteer (Hutchinson), Taylor Substitutes not used: Jones