As Sunderland raced towards an FA Cup Final appearance at Wembley, there was the small matter of Division Two survival to contend with, too.
On our day, we could compete with – and, as proven during the FA Cup run, beat – most comers. Unfortunately, our day didn’t seem to come all that often.
We’d enjoyed a decent uptick in form after the departure of Denis Smith, with Malcolm Crosby guiding the team to five wins and a draw in his first six games. Two of these victories were in the FA Cup, Port Vale and Oxford succumbing to a team that seemed to have had the shackles removed.
In truth, however, the FA Cup run masked some desperately poor league form, and after that initial flurry of victories we notched up only two league wins in the next 12 games – and suffered nine defeats – which left us perilously close to appearing at Wembley as a team relegated to the Third Division.
After a 2-0 defeat at Grimsby on Easter Saturday (our good friend Clive Mendonca predictably on the scoresheet), we hosted Middlesbrough at Roker Park on Easter Monday.
We’d built up a bit of a fixture backlog due to the FA Cup – and this was our fifth game in ten days. We’d played Charlton at home on 11 April (losing 2-1), Ipswich at home on the 14th (winning 3-0), Plymouth at home on the 16th (losing 1-0), and Grimsby away on the 18th (losing 2-0) before facing Middlesbrough at home 30 years ago today.
Don Goodman, our record signing at the time, had been unfortunate to miss out on FA Cup action due to appearing in the first round of the competition for West Brom, and he’d missed out at Blundell Park through injury suffered against Peter Shilton’s Pilgrims.
As the teams were announced for the encounter against promotion-chasing Middlesbrough, it was not only Goodman but also John Byrne who was conspicuous by his absence.
Byrne was rested for the game – a bold move by Malcolm Crosby – and his place taken by Warren Hawke, making his first start of the season.
I will give John Byrne a breather. He has lost his sharpness. His is just a shadow of himself, I have spoken to him about it and he accepts the situation.
We need fresh legs because it is such a bit game. We will have to use our full squad.
We perhaps have been a bit unfair on Byrne We expect him to score goals in every game. He badly needs a rest.
It was a bold move from Crosby, and it was one of four changes to the team that had gone down at Grimsby – Paul Hardyman, Brian Mooney and David Rush also missing out. Gary Bennett won back his place after injury, while Ian Sampson also earned a rare start; Gary Owers, recently returned from injury, was named in the centre of midfield alongside skipper Paul Bracewell, who himself had only just come back into the team after missing a few weeks with injury, too.
Unsurprisingly, it was a tense, edgy game in front of a near-capacity crowd of 25,098 at Roker Park, and Sunderland managed to summon the FA Cup spirit that had deserted them for much of their league campaign.
With places at Wembley up for grabs, Sunderland turned in an excellent display that was typified by the only goal of the game. Davenport – who else – produced a spectacular strike from the edge of the box midway through the first half.
A superb long pass forward by Ian Sampson split the Boro defence, Davenport brought the ball down beautifully on the move, and fired past Pears in front of a Boro-packed Roker End.
There was none of this ‘refusing to celebrate against your old team’ nonsense in those days, and Davenport lapped up the applause to mark what was only his fifth goal of the season.
Technically, Davenport was a superb player, but often appeared on the periphery of the game rather than taking it by the scruff of the neck and dominating it as a player of his ability could and should have done.
Today was one of those occasions he dominated – perhaps spurred on by the chance to play at Wembley, perhaps motivated by the chance to put one over on his old team. Whatever the cause, he produced what The Journal’s Jeff Brown called ‘his best game in a red and white striped shirt’. You’d have been hard-pressed to argue.
Gary Owers almost made it two, defender Jimmy Phillips blocking his long-range drive, while Tony Norman saved well from Jon Gittens and John Hendrie when Boro did find a way past a resolute Sunderland defence, with full backs John Kay and Anton Rogan performing admirably.
Norman’s 88th minute save from GIttens’ header (play video below) was the pick of the bunch, and it preserved a vital three points for the Rokermen in Crosby’s quest to stay up.
After the game, Crosby praised his side, but wished Davenport would produce the quality he’d displayed today on a more frequent basis.
It was a great goal from Dav, but I wish he would be a bit greedier.
He could do a hell of a lot more if he was more selfish around the box.
At times he does so many good things, but he’s always looking to put other people in when really he should have a go himself.
It proved to be our final win of the season – four draws from the last four games saw us finish five points off relegation, and we headed to Wembley with our Division Two status confirmed, for another season at least.