After beating Port Vale in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, a trip to Oxford United in the next stage of the competition was probably the last thing Sunderland fans wanted, following a dismal showing there just a few weeks earlier. A heavy defeat against the Us led to the dismissal of manager Denis Smith, whose side had been expected to be in the promotion chase following a hard-fought battle against the drop from Division One the season before.
The relegation hangover had proven hard to shift however, and it was only when caretaker boss Malcolm Crosby stepped forward that there was an upturn in fortunes. Facing Sunderland quickly become an entirely different prospect, and when the rematch eventually took place the Lads were in red hot form. The tie had originally been due to be played on Saturday 25 of January, but a frozen pitch put a stop to that and so the fixture was rearranged to kick off 30 years ago today.
With the FA Cup still a prestigious tournament the game attracted a crowd of nearly 4000 more than the league match had. Unsurprisingly, the away end was packed and a frenzied travelling support got a close up view of an early opener from John Byrne, who tapped home after Paul Hardyman’s deflected cross had fallen perfectly for him at the back post.
The roles were then reversed for Sunderland’s second, with Byrne breaking into the box and seeing his shot rebounding nicely into Hardyman’s path as he drilled the ball into the net.
After taking a deserved two goal lead Sunderland continued to look like a team with a new-found confidence. There was a fluidity to their play that had not been seen over the last few months and it looked like nothing would stop them sewing the game up until a curious turn of events during half time, when a call was received claiming a bomb had been placed in the ground. A message was put across the public address system asking supporters to look for any suspicious packages and it was only when the claim was confirmed as being a hoax that the second half was allowed to start.
Sunderland’s charge was back on therefore, and the delay seemed to have done little to knock them off their stride. They went further ahead when Brian Atkinson made it 3-0, and despite there being over half an hour still to play at this point the game was pretty much over as a contest. The goal once again had a slight element of fortune about it – Atkinson was able to blast in after a Byrne shot had hit the post and dropped in front of him – but the team had certainly created their own luck and been alert enough to react first to the situations.
Wearing their alternate red shorts, Sunderland looked the part all night virtually. Byrne’s curled effort onto the woodwork in the build up to the third goal had come about following a lovely team move, but the side had looked solid at the back as well. It was only in the final stages when that changed, with Paul Simpson reducing the deficit and Dave Penney scoring another following a short spell of head tennis in the box.
There had already been enough drama during the break though, and there wasn’t enough time for a grandstand finish. With a 3-2 victory confirmed, Crosby now had five wins out of six and a 5th round match against West Ham United to look forward to – cup fever was about to take hold across Wearside and would eventually culminate in a Wembley final, but the Twin Towers would have remained a pipe dream had it not been for a superb performance on this day in 1992.
Wednesday 5 February 1992
FA Cup 4th round
Oxford United 2 (Simpson 89, Penney 90)
Sunderland 3 (Byrne 3, Hardyman 24, Atkinson 53)
Sunderland: Norman; Kay, Bennett, Ball, Rogan; Rush, Bracewell, Atkinson, Hardyman; Davenport, Byrne (Pascoe 78). Unused: Ord.
Oxford: Veysey, Foster, Jackson, Lewis, Evans, Melville, Penney, Beauchamp (Allen 61) , Aylott, Durnin (Robinson 61), Simpson.
Manor Ground, attendance 9,968