If someone had asked a group of Sunderland fans what was likely to follow after Sunderland’s relegation from the First Division in May 1991, I doubt any of them would have predicted we’d finish five points above the drop, reach the FA Cup final and Malcolm Crosby would have taken over from Denis Smith as manager.
If it does one thing, then it proves that following the Lads is never dull.
Reaching the FA Cup final was the obvious highlight in what was a rollercoaster of a season, where after only eight league games we lost our talisman Marco Gabbiadini to Crystal Palace for something in the region of £1.8 million.
Things then looked up when Denis Smith finally had the funds to strengthen the squad and added Anton Rogan, Don Goodman and John Byrne to the ranks. A few weeks later, Smith was sacked, and Crosby was given the caretaker manager role and things picked up almost instantly, our league form improved, and we bounced back up to the safety of mid-table.
From around the time of our fourth round tie at Oxford United, the story of the season was based around relegation form in the league games, running in parallel with almost super-human performances in the FA Cup.
These were the performances that provided hope going into the following season that we could make a push for at least the playoffs, which was the original expectation following our relegation.
It was the inaugural season of the Premier League, which we had high hopes of playing a part in, and this meant we were kicking off the season in the newly formed Barclays League Division One, as opposed to Division Two at the time. Amazingly it did take a while to get used to this fact and for some it will always remain Division Two - there’s also something wonderful about saying or hearing the words... Division Four.
Anyway... three debutants began their Sunderland careers on the opening day at Swindon Town - Terry Butcher, Shaun Cunnington and John Colquhoun. Glenn Hoddle scored the goal that gave Swindon a 1-0 win, and by the time our clash against Derby County at the Baseball Ground came around, our seventeenth league game of the season, we had recorded only four victories as we sat two places and three points above the drop.
The pressure was building on Malcolm Crosby, who had been given the job permanently, and although Derby County were hovering just outside the play-offs, Arthur Cox had spent big money and expectations were high. Cox, who was Bob Stoke’s assistant when we defeated Leeds United in 1973 to win the FA Cup, had spent almost £10 million and his first major addition was to bring in former Roker favourite Marco Gabbiadini to the East Midlands, after his move to Palace didn’t go to plan.
The striker had scored 87 goals in 184 appearances at Roker and this would be the first time he faced the Lads since leaving for the capital, with Crosby discussing the decision to allow him to leave Sunderland in the build-up to the game:
Selling Marco was possibly the right thing for all concerned. Denis got him from York for next to nothing, and the money the club got for him was very good. Palace were in the First Division and he must have felt it was a good move - even if it didn’t turn out that way.
Marco has probably put it down to experience now. I don’t think either he or Palace gave it a real chance. From all reports he’s enjoying himself again at Derby. Hopefully we can make good use of what we know about him from his time here.
In other team news leading up to the game, Gary Bennett was struggling for fitness and was unlikely to be available to take his place on the bench as he had done in the previous game, which ended in a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City at Roker. In line to take his place was a young 18-year-old by the name of Michael Gray.
Gray had only been involved in first team duties to play twelve minutes of a pre-season friendly against Tottenham Hotspur, but Malcolm Crosby commented on his inclusion:
He’s got more zip and enthusiasm than most of the kids coming through.
Sunderland went into the game against the in-form side in the division on a run of one win in seven and five successive away defeats - but incredibly took the lead in the 16th minute through Don Goodman who instinctively threw his left foot at a Brian Atkinson shot that wrong-footed Steve Sutton in the Derby goal to claim his fifth of the season.
Other than that, it was one-way traffic on a pitch that can only be described as a mud-bath. The home side struck the woodwork twice and had two goals ruled out for offside, but Crosby’s side dug in to claim all three points.
The cherry on top was that Michael Gray played his part and made his debut for the club in a competitive game when he replaced Kevin Ball at half-time, after the Sunderland skipper's back had stiffened up during the break.
It was a much-needed three points that meant Crosby was likely to be safe for at least another week, but he commented on the fact the axe could still fall despite the victory:
I have to accept the pressure when we aren’t winning games.
So I would be a bit sick if I got the sack this weekend.