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On This Day (17th May 1987): Sunderland are relegated to Division Three for the first time

Once known as ‘The Bank of England Club’, the once-great Sunderland AFC plunged to (at the time) the lowest depths in their history when relegation to the third tier was confirmed back in 1987.

The 1986-87 season was a turbulent, tumultuous one for the club.

Tom Cowie departed, Bob Murray arrived. We also all know the infamous Houdini act by Lawrie McMenemy, leaving the club in the depths of despair. Potential relegation to Division three was also looming.

Play offs and Sunderland - they just have not been our friend over the years. Of course, we hope that is something that will be changed on Saturday - but unfortunately, on this day, a dark cloud loomed large over Roker Park.

In 1987, this was a dark day for Sunderland and our football club. After a miserable season - in which club legend Bob Stokoe return for a brief spell in a rescue mission to avoid relegation to Division Three - the ending of our season came down to a second leg match against Gillingham.

With the first leg finishing 3-2 to The Gills, Sunderland were acutely aware of what they had to do to ensure they did not succumb to another relegation in just a couple of seasons.

Bob Stokoe Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

And we couldn’t have asked for a worse possible start - our deficit was doubled after Howard Pritchard headed Gillingham into the lead after three minutes. This was wiped out by a quickfire double by Eric Gates, who got the 25,000-strong Roker crowd singing to bring the tie level.

It was a physical encounter, with both teams giving it their all, leading to an end-to-end spectacle. In the 33rd minute, Sunderland were offered a huge opportunity to take the lead when they were awarded a penalty after Dave Swindlehurst’s header was handled on the line. After scoring a brace in the first leg, Mark Proctor had his penalty saved. This was the second vital penalty he had missed after missing a crucial one against Barnsley on the last day of the season.

Sunderland would come to rue that miss. In a bizarre incident, Sunderland conceded.

Having inexplicably rushed off his line, Sunderland goalkeeper Iain Hesford gave away an unnecessary penalty - going on to save it, only for the villain of the first leg, Tony Cascarino, to score the rebound. This restored Gillingham’s lead and meant Sunderland had to throw the kitchen sink at it and really go for the tie - they had no other choice.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Millwall v Nottingham Forest - The Den Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Credit to them. They gave it a right go.

With lots of balls thrown forward, Gary Bennett was becoming a menace in the opposition box, with his strength and physicality troubling the Gillingham defence. In the 88th minute, he scored a spectacular header to bring the tie to extra time. Roker Park was rocking and Sunderland fans were hopeful of avoiding the dreaded Division Three.

Hope was crushed three minutes into extra time when Cascarino yet again broke Sunderland hearts. The Irish international sneaked in at the back post unmarked to tap in the vital goal. This left Sunderland’s task even tougher with the away goals rule ensuring they would need two to win. Though they got one back through Keith Bertschin, it would be too little too late.

Sunderland were relegated - the only club ever to go down on away goals - and that was because the extra time was played at Wearside.

It was a dark day in the history of the club with the Sunderland Echo reporter Geoff Storey summing it up succinctly and to the point:

What happened to this once-proud club at Roker Park yesterday was a disgrace. Sunderland in the third tier is unthinkable and unforgivable.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time.

Surely we are owed some playoff luck?


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