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On This Day (25 April 1987): Stokoe’s first win after return lifts Sunderland out of drop zone!

It took Bob Stokoe three games to record his first win after returning to Roker – but he did so as we took on relegation rivals Shrewsbury Town in a bid to avoid the play-offs.

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Most of the time, a relegation after five years in the top flight in a year that includes reaching a domestic cup final at Wembley, should be just a blip.

This should especially be true when you take one of the highest-rated managers in the land from a side that was regularly overachieving domestically and that had competed in the UEFA Cup three out of the previous four years.

Lawrie McMenemy took charge of Southampton ten months after our victory over Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup final, and two years later took the Saints to victory over Manchester United via a Bobby Stokes goal to lift the same trophy.

Promotion to Division One followed two years later and, thanks to a policy of hiring experienced players like Alan Ball and Kevin Keegan to the ranks, achieved three top-ten finishes out of the five that followed promotion.

Lawrie McMenemy Celebrates Victory
Happier times for Lawrie McMenemy as his Southampton side are through to the FA Cup final after beating Crystal Palace in the semi-final at Stamford Bridge in 1976.
Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To top that, in their sixth year in the top flight following that promotion in 1983-84, they achieved the club's highest-ever league placing when they finished as runners-up to perennial winners at that time Liverpool, trailing them by only three points. Then to prove it wasn’t a one-off, led them to a 5th placed finish as our season ended in relegation and defeat in the League Cup final under Len Ashurst.

So, it was a bit of a shock to the football world when Lawrie McMenemy resigned from his post of over a decade at Southampton, who he had transformed from a second-tier side into a team with back-to-back top-five finishes in Division One, to then announce five days later that he was the new manager of a second division side that were a bit of a mess.

It was a coup for Sunderland owner Tom Cowie, who was eager to find favour with fans after a boardroom battle with Barry Batey that was seen by some to have contributed to our fall from the top flight the previous year.

Many people asked why McMenemy had made the move to replace Len Ashurst?

Some speculated it was to return to his roots having been born in Gateshead and began his managerial career at Bishop Auckland. But the most likely reason for the strange move was the fact that the former Newcastle United youth team player, had now become the highest-paid football manager in England. In Division Two.

Sunderland Manager Len Ashurst and Norwich City Manager Ken Brown
Sunderland Manager Len Ashurst and Norwich City Manager Ken Brown ahead of the 1985 Milk Cup final
Getty Images

As we so often do, we believed we were back in the game and with securing McMenemy the good times were just around the corner. The new manager went straight to work and clearly attempted to replicate his winning formula at Southampton by acquiring players of a certain level of experience and age.

The likes of Seamus McDonagh, Frank Gray, Dave Swindlehurst and Eric Gates all made their debut as McMenemy kicked off his reign at Roker Park against Bobby Saxton’s Blackburn Rovers side, a game that ended in a 2-0 defeat. We went on to lose the first five of the season and only just stayed up by virtue of winning the final two games of the season to finish three points clear of the drop.

Bizarrely, McMenemy was given another crack at it the following year and it amazingly took until there were only seven games remaining after a run of one win in ten that he was finally shown the door at Roker Park, and even then the circumstances of his departure weren’t initially clear.

By this time it was Bob Murray calling the shots in the boardroom and it required a messiah to take on the challenge of avoiding the drop into the third tier of the Football League for the first time in our history. So Murray did just that.

Eric Gates

Bob Stokoe was hired for the remaining seven games of the regulation season in hope of a miracle and a defeat to Bradford City in his opening game followed by a draw against Billy Bremner’s Leeds United in front of only 14,725 didn’t suggest he would be able to pull it off.

Next up were Shrewsbury Town at Gay Meadow, who may have been sitting five places higher in the table, but were only four points out in front as we had a game in-hand. It was a big opportunity for Stokoe to collect his first victory in his second spell at Roker.

As the sun baked the pitch at Gay Meadow, it was clear the game wouldn’t be a classic from the off as both sides battled for maximum points, but it was obvious that Stokoe was putting smiles back on faces. McMenemy had signed off stating that he had never seen so much fear in the face of footballers as he had for those he sent out in a red and white shirt, and smiles were beginning to return along with form.

Dave Swindlehurst was stepping it up, Mark Proctor found the form that was expected of him at Roker and Frank Gray had never looked so comfortable in a Sunderland shirt, which in turn freed up Gary Bennett to express himself, and at Gay Meadow he displayed just how much.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Sunderland v Newcastle United - Roker Park
Gary Bennett
Photo by Paul Marriott/EMPICS via Getty Images

With just over 20 minutes remaining, the Sunderland skipper was well placed to steer a Mark Proctor shot into the back of the net from close range to give us a lifeline against the drop. Even though this lifted us two places and one point above the drop, we still required points with four to play and the momentum seemed to be with us.

One win and draw from those games, however, meant we finished in the final relegation spot – and we’d need to take part in a play-off to avoid relegation. A rare occasion where we have actively wanted to avoid an extension to the season, unlike our current situation.

Saturday 25th April, 1987

Today League Division Two

Gay Meadow

Shrewsbury Town 0-1 Sunderland

[Bennett 67’]

Sunderland: Hesford, Agboola, Gray, Bennett, Corner, Kennedy, Armstrong, Proctor, Gates, Swindlehurst, Bertschin Substitute not used: Doyle

Shrewsbury Town: Perks, Williams, Johnson, Steele, Pearson, Linighan, McNally, Hackett, Brown (Leonard), Robinson, Tester

Attendance: 5,431


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