The Lads were in the capital on this day in 1988 as part of the Football League’s Centenary celebrations, but the Mercantile Credit Football Festival proved underwhelming to say the least.
After a drawn-out qualification process that lasted months, Denis Smith’s side were eliminated within an hour – ensuring that an occasion that failed to capture the public’s imagination is little more than a footnote in Sunderland history.
Any game at the national stadium is noteworthy to a point but following a limp performance against fellow Division Three side Wigan Athletic all this day really did was help start the idea of a Wembley hoodoo – Sunderland’s first defeat there had come three years earlier and now they had a penalty shoot-out loss to add to the list.
Heartache under the iconic Twin Towers would become a reoccurring theme in coming seasons, and yet the club had actually travelled down in good spirits.
During the 1987-88 season, SAFC was undergoing a much-needed rebirth. Fans that had endured relegation from Division One in 1985 and then witnessed the disastrous Lawrie McMenemy reign were desperate to see a return to basics, and Smith was the man to oblige. Fundamentals like properly scouting players and organising the side were helping turn things back around, and now, after all the turmoil, there was a trip to London to enjoy.
There were to be no league fixtures over the course of the weekend but the tournament format – straight knock out games lasting 40 minutes on day one followed, by hour-long semi-finals and a final on day two – was not the most appealing.
Neutrals had little interest, whilst supporters of those involved were understandably reticent about booking accommodation and travel for an event where there were no guarantees over how long they would be there for.
Add in the fact too that none of the big London clubs were competing, and unsurprisingly ticket sales were slow – the attendance figures later given were cumulative, and there were large sections of the ground empty at any one time.
Despite the generally lukewarm reception, Sunderland had been playing well so those that did come down from Wearside, forking out between £6 and £20 for a ticket, were keen to make the most of it.
There was some hope of progress too – the Rokerites were one of only three teams to qualify with an unbeaten record and had been drawn against a side they had already beaten earlier in the season.
Their 4-1 win over Wigan had come in October, a month before the qualifying started. Results in standard league games went towards mini-leagues, with the best eight Division One sides over the period earning a spot alongside four from Division Two and two each from Division Three and Four. Ten wins and five draws in that time put Sunderland through, with a 2-0 win over Brentford sealing the deal.
Two surprise defeats followed thereafter, but by the time of the Festival Sunderland had recovered and were well on the way to promotion. They had also travelled to Wigan for a league match too, infamous for the ‘mud sliders’ in the away end and goalkeeper Iain Hesford having the ball kicked out of his hands in the build-up to the Latic’s late equaliser.
Hesford (alongside Gary Bennett) happened to be suspended for the tournament, meaning recent arrival Tim Carter was between the sticks despite not yet making his competitive debut for the club. He was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers too, saving a header from Bobby Campbell and blocking a Paul Jewell effort with his feet, and despite the format supposedly being meant to encourage attacking, fast-paced football, Sunderland looked ponderous.
The game seemed to pass the Lads by, with it soon ending 0-0 and going to a shoot-out. Clive Walker’s Milk Cup final spot-kick miss three years earlier had contributed to that maiden Wembley loss and whilst John MacPhail made no mistake with the opening effort, Colin Pascoe was about to suffer the same fate.
Alongside Carter he had been one of the few Sunderland players to have made an impact in open play, but after seeing Stan McEwan level up the scores his attempts at bluff backfired and after showing Phil Hughes where he was going to aim for, the keeper dutifully followed and got a strong hand to the shot.
Paul Cook scored to see his side through 2-1 on sudden death penalties, with Smith later labelling his side’s performance as “pathetic”. His rebuild was still gathering pace however and he was keen to move on; a defeat for Northampton Town on the Friday night had guaranteed a play-off place at the very least but a fortnight later the team confirmed promotion with a win over Port Vale anyway, so whilst the Wembley struggles would continue for years, at least the immediate picture looked a lot better than it had.
Wigan meanwhile fell at the next stage, losing to eventual finalists Sheffield Wednesday before dropping out of the third division, leading pack in the final weeks. As for the Owls, they were beaten by Nottingham Forest, who picked up a winner’s cheque for £60,000 despite the absence of manager Brian Clough.
Organised chiefly by Ken Bates and announced to great fanfare, the tournament was widely panned in the press in the days afterwards and sadly little in the way of footage of it exists – if only because an otherwise largely forgetful event saw the appearance of a little known Sunderland kit.
Drawn as the ‘second side’ and with competition rules meaning neither their home kit or usual light blue change kit would be acceptable against Wigan, the Lads were forced to use an alternative. The tie started at 16:40, nearly seven hours after the festivities had commenced, but when they emerged for kick off the side looked bright and eager in a simple yellow shirts and shorts combination.
Their performance didn’t match their appearance sadly but then again, not much else about the Festival lived up to expectations either. Besides, very little had been at stake and Sunderland supporters travelling home could console themselves with the knowledge that things were now going in the right direction.
Saturday 16 April 1988
Mercantile Credit Football Festival
Wigan Athletic 0
(Wigan win 2-1 on penalties)
Sunderland: Carter; Kay, Ord, MacPhail, Gray; Pascoe, Owers, Lemon, Armstrong; Gates, Gabbiadini. Substitutes: Richardson, Corner, Doyle, Cornforth, Bertschin.
Wembley, attendance c. 40, 000