It seems strange on reflection, given we know just how disastrously this season ended, but in early February 1987 no one was thinking about relegation. It wasn’t even on the cards. Yes, we’d only survived the drop the following season by four points, and yes, the 86-87 season hadn’t seen a huge improvement – but up until this point it was a bit better.
We’d finished October in 5th position, but a run of two league wins in 12 games had seen us sink into mid-table. The two wins had come in recent home games – 3-0 against Blackburn and 2-1 against Huddersfield, but the Roker Park faithful were voting with their feet: crowds of 16-17,000 earlier in the season had dropped off to 10,000 by the time The Terriers came to town, but the team had followed it up with a disappointing 1-0 away defeat at Reading.
Lawrie McMenemy had made a raft of big name, experienced signings during his time in charge, trying to replicate the formula with which he’d enjoyed success at Southampton – in the north east, however, it simply hadn’t worked.
One of his big-name signings was former England striker Eric Gates, While he had top scored in his first season – albeit with 9 goals – he hadn’t set Roker alight in the manner that had been hoped, and had spend a considerable amount of this campaign sidelined through injury – but was back in contention for a tough away trip to struggling Brighton.
Gates was fit again, however, and was ready to return to the starting line up for only the tenth time this season, in the team’s 29th fixture.
I’ve never questioned Eric’s attitude. Even when he has been back in the reserves with eight or nine youngsters, he has given it a good go.
The thing is, like Alan Kennedy, Frank Gray and George Burley, he has always played with quality players around him. That’s not to know the people we have here, but we haven’t had enough control, consistently, to give the ball to him in the box.
As well as naming Gates in the starting line up, McMenemy selected another experienced forward Terry Curran, up front, and threw a couple of surprises Brighton’s way by playing Reuban Agboola at left back for the first time in his career, and dropping Mark Proctor and Dave Swindlehurst.
Those decisions paid off in style, as Sunderland cantered to a convincing 3-0 win – and it was started by Gates, who finished neatly on 12 minutes from Armstong’s cut back.
Shortly after half time, the game was over as a contest, when Curran curled in a lovely second, and the icing was put on the cake by a Gary Bennett volley – the captain shooting home after a George Burley free kick.
3-0, and it marked McMenemy’s biggest away win as Sunderland manager – lifting us up to 12th in the table.
Of course, it was only temporary respite. The following week, the team succumbed to a narrow home defeat to a Derby side destined for promotion, and then followed that up with two wins in three. It always seemed as if we were on the verge of putting a run of results together, without ever doing so.
One point from the six following fixtures, however, saw McMenemy’s moonlight departure, and we all know what happened after that... although as it turned out, we finished on 48 points – a total that, ironically, would have kept us up the season before.
Brighton 0-3 Sunderland
Goldstone Ground, 7820.
Sunderland: Hesford, Burley, Hetzke, Bennett, Agboola, Lemon, Doyle, Armstrong, Gray, Curran, Gates. Sub not used: Buchanan.
Brighton: Keeley, O’Regan, Hutchings (Saunders 46), Wilson, Gatting, Young, Penney, Jasper, Tiltman, Connor, Hughes.