As is the case here in 2022, when Sunderland were promoted into the second tier in 1988, a lot of the talk was of midtable being a realistic goal. After witnessing a strong recovery on this day, though, manager Denis Smith felt confident enough to start looking forward and was setting his sights on more than just consolidation.
The manager would later take charge of opponents West Bromwich Albion and happened to be turning 41 on the day of their visit, but the celebrations may have been dampened were it not for a late intervention from Gary Bennett. His late goal secured a point for the Lads after trailing since the first half, and after responding well to the Baggies’ bright start, the gaffer was feeling good.
Speaking to The Journal’s Jeff Brown, a bullish Smith had the following to say;
People say you shouldn’t talk about promotion, but why not? The way we are playing gives us a good chance of going up.
From what I have seen we can compete with anybody.
This outlook hadn’t been dimmed by seeing Sunderland slip down the table slightly to 10th – the bigger picture was that the team had shown great fight to get back on level terms and were now unbeaten in nine matches. They were the only team in Division Two yet to be beaten at home in the league too, although for a long period it looked as if that little claim was about to go the distance.
Albion’s player-manager Brian Talbot appeared to have got Sunderland’s number in the opening half. Since coming back into Division Two the Rokerites had found success through an impressively high work rate, but on this occasion the visitors matched them for effort and it left Smith’s men struggling for answers. Gary Owers and home debutant Tommy Lynch had been asked to support the attack but were finding themselves hemmed in, while Marco Gabbiadini, Billy Whitehurst and Colin Pascoe were finding themselves smothered in the final third.
Chief amongst West Brom’s grafters was Don Goodman, who in future years would be doing the same thing in a red and white shirt. He was a constant danger down Lynch’s side in the first half, although when his side took the lead it came from a set piece; Iain Hesford only being able to get a partial glove to a cross and Gary Robson – brother of England skipper Bryan – gobbling up the loose ball. The scorer was then forced to go off injured in the second half, and while his withdrawal forced Talbot into a reshuffle the tide had already started turning by that stage.
Lynch, a summer signing from Limerick, had debuted in the Full Members Cup 11 days earlier and then played in midfield at Chelsea. He was on the receiving end of some terrace criticism, yet had started getting a measure of things when Goodman was forced to switch flanks. The team as a whole had started regrouping too, and after the initial shock of being forced out of their usual stride were now having to find a way to get back into rhythm.
Smith will have been encouraged by the way the players were adapting to the situation and leaning in on a slightly more direct style, and the longer the second half went on the more likely it seemed Sunderland would get an equaliser. It was not all plain sailing though, and the pressure did see tempers rising – with a little over ten minutes left Gabbiadini was booked for a flare-up with Robert Hopkins that some suggested could have warranted a red. Stuart Naylor, meanwhile, was doing his bit in the Baggies’ net, sticking a leg out to block a Bennett attempt shortly after Steve Doyle had gone close as well.
Last time out at Roker, a Doyle screamer had rescued a point against Stoke City, and with West Brom digging in fans were wondering if it would have to take something similarly spectacular to break through once more. A desperate clearance, however, suggested that Albion were not as composed as they’d have wanted, and moments later, they were finally breached.
Trying to get his team up the pitch and the ball away from danger, Stacey North only managed to put it on the Fulwell End roof, and once play resumed, the goal that had been coming finally arrived – Bennett hooking in from Whitehurst’s knockdown.
It was a stirring end and meant a well-deserved draw, and while Sunderland didn’t go up just yet, things were certainly taking shape. Maybe Smith was just bigging up hopes as a way of boosting the morale of his squad, but he certainly had the nucleus of a strong side that, over time, would be capable of more than just holding its own at the level.
The comparisons to the current era remain very clear.
Saturday 19 November 1988
Football League Division Two
Sunderland 1 (Bennett, 85)
West Bromwich Albion 1 (Robson, 25)
Sunderland: Hesford; Gray, MacPhail, Bennett, Lynch; Owers, Armstrong, Doyle (Gates 79), Pascoe; Gabbiadini, Whitehurst. Unused: Agboola
Roker Park, attendance 18, 141