November and December are notoriously hard slogs in the football calendar. Evenings get darker, more quickly. Temperatures plummet and the fixture calendar gets rather busy.
For the players, the early season novelty of being back in action has worn off. We’re well into the serious stuff. Results need ground out, substance over style.
Back on this day in 1989, we were wondering which direction the season would actually go in. We’d started brightly in our second season back in Division Two – impressively so, as wins over newly relegated Middlesbrough and Watford, in particular, testified.
Paul Bracewell had returned to the club for his second spell – five years after departing for Goodison Park. It was a coup – after all, he’d started the FA Cup final only a few months earlier, but had found himself on the periphery of Colin Harvey’s team.
After spending so long out injured, he understandably didn’t want to be sidelined any more than was necessary and returned ‘home’ – initially on a month’s loan, which was quickly made permanent.
It wasn’t all good news, however. Record signing Tony Norman had suffered a serious injury at West Brom in early September, Paul Bracewell had missed the last three, and injuries were beginning to take their toll. Youngster Kieron Brady had been given his debut the week before, and reserve full back Paul Williams was covering for the injured John Kay.
After sitting second in early October, the lads had been brought back down to earth with a bump – a 2-0 defeat at Leeds was followed by a 5-0 stuffing at West Ham. That was enough to send us back down to eighth place, but the team responded well – and heading to the Goldstone Ground 33 years ago today we were sitting in fourth place. The six games since Upton Park had brought 13 points, and Denis Smith – who’d been linked heavily with the vacant manager’s job at Stoke in the weeks prior (take note of the loyalty, Alex Neil) – was looking up, rather than down.
The good news before the game was that Paul Bracewell was fit again – as a result, 22-year-old midfielder John Cornforth was allowed to join Shrewsbury on loan with a view to a permanent move – while Tony Norman was on the verge of being in contention, too, having played in the Zenith Data Systems Cup at home to Port Vale.
Gary Owers was looking forward to the game, and after losing 3-1 and 3-0 in the last two visits to Brighton he was gunning for revenge.
We are due a good performance down there, on the last two occasions, we never did ourselves justice.
We just seemed to have hit them when they have been on top form. Tomorrow would be an ideal time to set the record straight.
Owers, who was catching the eye of top-flight clubs, had just been called up for England under 21s, and as it tuned out it was the young midfielder who scored the winner at the Goldstone Ground in an important 2-1 win – sweeping home a goal after Eric Gates beat a few challenges.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. Far from it.
The first 45 minutes was all one-way traffic. The wrong way.
The returning Bracewell hobbled off with a recurrence of the injury that had kept him out for the best part of a month just after the half-hour, with the game level at 1-1. Nicky Bissett had put Brighton ahead early on, only for Marco Gabbiadini to intercept a back pass and equalise shortly after.
How Sunderland got in level at half time is anyone’s guess. Brighton attacked consistently, and the lads struggled to cope. But, cope they did, and in doing so showed a great deal of grit and determination.
This was a team that was growing in stature, growing in belief and confidence – and they now knew if they weren’t playing well, the mental side of the game – and their off-the-ball work – had to be spot on.
And spot on it was.
After some strong words from Smith at half time, the lads came out as if they were happy to be back on the field, rather than being subjected to a further tirade from the manager. Bracewell’s replacement Atkinson grew into the game, and put in a tough tackling display that helped the lads get control of proceedings.
There were further chances at both ends – Brighton probably should have had a penalty when Armstrong’s arm kept out a Chivers header, while late in the game, Owers last-ditch tackle denied Garry Nelson a more-than-deserved equaliser.
Still, the three points went north, and Sunderland racked up their fourth away win of the campaign – as many as they’d registered in the whole of the season before.
We cemented our fourth position in the league and things were, indeed, looking up
Brighton 1-2 Sunderland
The Goldstone Ground, Brighton. 8,681
Bissett (12), Gabbiadini (18), Owers (48)
Sunderland: Carter, Williams, Bennett, Ord, Agboola, Pascoe, Owers, Bracewell (Atkinson 35), Armstrong, Gates, Gabbiadini. Sub not used Hauser.