It was the month that Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison and a week after the very first McDonalds opened in Moscow, but away from world affairs in February 1990, there was a small matter of a chase for promotion to the top flight of English football.
It hasn’t happened all that often through the years, but Sunderland and Newcastle United were both in the mix for at least a play-off spot.
Both clubs, however, were approaching the chase from different viewpoints. Newcastle were under pressure to make an immediate return to the top flight after being relegated the previous year along with Middlesbrough and West Ham United.
Jim Smith had pinned all his hopes on two major signings up-front in Mark McGhee, who signed from Celtic for his second spell with the club and Mick Quinn, who signed for Portsmouth for £680,000 – which only increased the expectation on Newcastle to return to Division One at the first time of asking.
At Sunderland however, we were just enjoying the ride and, to a certain extent, the pressure was off. Two years earlier, the Lads were plying their trade in the Third Division with virtually the same squad. The younger players of the squad such as Gary Owers, Gordon Armstrong and Marco Gabbiadini were progressing with the club as we returned to the Second Division and consolidated our position following promotion.
As February began, Leeds United and Sheffield United looked strong favourites for automatic promotion as an eight-point gap had opened up to Oldham Athletic in third, Sunderland sat a point behind in 5th and Newcastle United were another point behind in 7th, although they had a game in hand.
Despite the close proximity in the table, Sunderland were pitched as underdogs for the game with not only the bookmakers who had the home win priced at 11/10 but the local journalists also had the game down for a home win. Brian McNally was predicting a 3-1 win for Newcastle in the Journal and Jeff Brown went for a 2-0 home win.
The predictions could be explained by the fact that Denis Smith’s side were on a run of only winning one game in the previous ten, where a potential push for automatic promotion had turned to focusing on securing a play-off position.
In the build-up there was speculation on who would replace Gary Bennett at the back for Sunderland as he started a three-match ban for introducing David Speedie to the Clock Stand paddock regulars. Bennett was the sole survivor in the Sunderland squad from our last visit to St James’ Park where he was sent-off along with Howard Gayle as we went down 3-1 courtesy of a Peter Beardsley hat-trick.
In the end Reuben Agboola got the nod to partner John MacPhail at the back over Richard Ord, who surprisingly wasn’t named on the bench given MacPhail was carrying a knock going into the game.
The game was moved to midday on Sunday to mitigate potential crowd trouble being the first meeting on Tyneside between the two sides for five years, but in the hours before kick-off it was uncertain that the game would go ahead. It was revealed afterwards that gale-force winds should have seen the game cancelled according to Football League rules.
But with the profile of the game, combined with the fact the majority of the crowd had already packed into St James’ Park, the police and referee Jim Ashworth let the game go-ahead. The rules stated that if winds exceeded 60mph the game should be postponed, and just before kick-off they reached 65mph. Jim Smith revealed that if the winds had arrived an hour earlier the game would have been off and on the pitch it led to farcical conditions where players had to hold the ball to allow others to take free-kicks and goal kicks throughout the game.
Both sides struggled with the conditions with chances few and far between, and it took until five minutes after the break for the deadlock to be broken. Denis Smith’s side were keeping the ball on the deck more than the home side and an intricate passing move down the left led to the ball landing at the feet of Eric Gates, and as he did on so many occasions, the ex-Ipswich Town striker flicked the ball to Marco Gabbiadini.
Once he was given a free-run at Bjorn Kristensen and Mark Stimson, there was only one result. His pace left them both behind and with only Burridge to beat, he slotted the ball home. Sunderland looked stronger after taking the lead, but maybe against the run of play, the home side equalised with just over ten minutes left on the clock.
A foul by Paul Hardyman on Gallacher provided an opportunity for Kevin Brock to float a free-kick to the back post to find Mark McGhee who rose to score from six yards out.
Most observers agreed that Sunderland were the better side and were unfortunate not to come away with all three points, and none more so than Denis Smith:
It seemed that some people thought we were coming to Newcastle just to make up the numbers. You would have thought we were a Division Four side. We came to St James’s Park as the top team in the North-East and we still hold that position after the match. There was a lot of gloom outside the club because of the way we were written off.
I am disappointed not to get three points. I thought in the second half that we were going to do it. I thought we were the better side and if we play like that we have a hell of a chance in the promotion run-in.
Sunday 4th February, 1990
Barclays League Division Two
St James’ Park
Newcastle United 1-1 Sunderland
[McGhee 77’ - Gabbiadini 49’]
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Agboola, MacPhail, Hardyman, Owers, Bracewell, Atkinson, Armstrong (Cullen), Gates, Gabbiadini Substitutes not used: Hauser
Newcastle United: Burridge, Bradshaw, Scott, Kristensen (Anderson), Stimson, Gallacher, Aitken, Dillion, Sweeney (Brock), McGhee, Quinn