Sunderland’s relegation from Division 1 in the spring of 1991 was painful but, given the means of our promotion, not wholly unexpected. But mid-table in Division 2 simply wasn’t good enough for Denis Smith’s Sunderland, and the manager who had lifted us out of Division 3 was starting to feel the pressure.
This was a time long before transfer deadline day, and so the squad was still evolving from that which had valiantly competed in the top flight. The loss of Marco Gabbiadini to Crystal Palace for a club record £1.8m in September left us short of options up front, so the gaffer was left with exciting youngster David Rush to partner former Manchester United man Peter Davenport and a few bob in his pocket to spend.
Kevin Campbell and Perry Groves from Arsenal, Andy Paynton from Hul, Keith Wright of Hibs, and Gary Penrice from Aston Villa were all on our radar to replace the legendary Marco.
We’d secured the loan signing of tricky winger Peter Beagrie from Everton, who would go on to excite the Roker Park crowd all too briefly, was being lined up for a £400,000 permanent deal and we had bolstered the ranks at the back with the acquisition of Northern Irish international fullback Anton Rogan.
As a nine-year old boy, this was a side that would become my heroes, full of players whose names I can reel off over thirty years later as easily as the current Sunderland squad.
It was a timely debut for the former Celtic man, as Paul Hardyman had been shown a straight red card in the defeat away at Middlesbrough in the previous game. But the new defensive line-up was breached early on by a player who would go on to make waves at the club in our famous cup run later that season.
Sunderland had been tracking Irish international John Byrne for a while - he was a former teammate of Smith and his assistant Malcolm Crosby at York City as a teenager, and in scoring the opener in this game he cemented his place as our number one target.
It took £250,000 of Bob Murray’s money to bring him up from the south coast, but it was worth every penny and more for the goals that got us to Wembley.
However, it was Beagrie who shone that afternoon, whose skill on the ball marked him out from the crowd; this game was when his legend as one of the great loan signings at the club was made. He played a mere five games for our club, and grabbed his only goal in a Sunderland shirt to equalise in front of the Roker End on 33 minutes.
It was a neat low finish from the edge of the box from a corner, but we went in for the break 2-1 down when John Robinson scored Brighton’s second ten minutes later, and at that point a victory seemed a long way off.
But just after half time, playing towards the Fulwell End, we came alive. And none more so than Lads fan Rush, who met a Davenport cross from the left and Mark Beeney, who hadn’t covered himself in glory with the first goal, made a hash of the effort which ricocheted in off the post to equalise for the second time.
Then, eight minutes Beagrie twisted and turned 20 yards out from goal on the left of the box and fired a shot that struck the post and bounced back across the box. Rush was there again to dive and head home into an empty net. As he got back to his feet he did what looked to be a prototype of the Peter Crouch robot dance in front of his fellow Mackems in the crowd.
Sunderland then got a fourth with just over a quarter of an hour left to play, but in circumstances that would lead to the headline of “Roker Joker” in the following day’s Sunday Mirror.
Gordon Armstrong was a clear eight yards offside when he received a flick-on when free on the penalty spot in Brighton’s box but there was no flag and he turned it home for our fourth. It was a decision that the midfielder himself later described as “embarrassing”.
Smith was full of praise for Rush’s work rate and pressing after the game, and he also had kind words for Byrne when speaking to the local press. The mulleted Mancunian would be Sunderland player a few days later as cash-strapped Brighton took a cut-price deal, but a deal for Beagrie wouldn’t materialise.
Smith did add Don Goodman to the squad before Murray’s patience ran out over Christmas and his assistant Crosby took over the reigns.
While Goodman’s goals secured our place in the league, Byrne’s form in the cup would go down in club history. These were the strikers who I fell in love with, they scored the goals that are cemented this Sunderland fan’s memory. I had the honour of interviewing Byrne during lockdown, and he’s as nice a fella as you’d ever want to speak to.
But I would still have given anything to see Beagrie play a few more times for the Lads that season.