clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

On This Day (28 May 1990): Promotion hopes dashed, or were they?

Thirty two years ago today, the Lads lost at Wembley in the playoff final, but in the end, it didn’t really matter…

Tony Norman was out in front in terms of performance... Image from Sunderland’s 100th Year in the Football League celebration book

Believe it or not, Sunderland didn’t always win at Wembley.

Prior to last season’s success, our hoodoo at the national stadium was long and painful, and for a while, the defeat we suffered on this day in 1990 looked to have represented a significant opportunity lost.

Defeat to Swindon Town in the playoff final seemed to have ended any hopes of promotion back to Division One, although the story would end in surreal and suitably unexpected fashion.

The two sides went into the match having finished the regular season on the same amount of points, but what Denis Smith’s side had in their favour was an impressive away record that had started on the opening day of the campaign, with victory at Swindon’s County Ground.

The Lads had also finished the season in good form, winning seven of their last eleven games before going into a highly-charged, two legged semi-final against neighbours Newcastle United.

Even the energy of Gary Owers couldn’t get Sunderland going. Image from the Roker Review 1990-91 Torpedo Moscow edition

Those derby games were an emotional rollercoaster for the supporters, as were the days that followed.

In truth, Sunderland were on the receiving end of the most comprehensive 1-0 beating you could ever see against Swindon, who attacked from the off and would have won by a much more convincing margin, were it not for an inspired goalkeeping performance by Tony Norman.

Although they benefited from a huge slice of luck for their goal, as Alan McLoughlin’s shot took a wicked deflection off Gary Bennett to completely wrong-foot Norman, the Robins fully deserved the win.

They dealt with the nerves and the sweltering conditions much better than Sunderland, whereas our fans, perhaps expecting a fairly tight encounter under the twin towers, had to come to terms with seeing their team being completely outplayed.

Defeat meant that another season in the second tier beckoned, and many fans turned to Italia 90 for a distraction from the disappointment. Perhaps they were hoping that watching some of the best players in the game on television would make up for not getting the chance to welcome them to Roker Park in the coming months.

It was during the World Cup, however, that the ride took another sharp turn.

Due to financial irregularities in Wiltshire, the Football League announced that Sunderland would be taking Swindon’s place in Division One, meaning that promotion had been achieved after all.

Marco Gabbiadini gets a rare chance of possession on this day. Image from The Black Cat - Gary Bennett’s Football Scrapbook.

The upshot was that it was the only time the club had succeeded in the playoffs, despite not actually winning on the day. After Saturday’s victory, however, we do have a more traditional success story to look back on, and so the story of 1990 is consigned to the list of Sunderland anecdotes – of weird and wonderful anomalies that never seem to be far away.

Although grateful for the reprieve, there were some fans who felt that being elevated away from the pitch seemed like an anti-climax.

Worse still, the confusion and delay meant that Sunderland were well behind the other clubs in terms of preparing for the following season, and despite a valiant effort, we would eventually suffer relegation on the final day of the 1990-1991 campaign.

Relegation was another entry on the long list of hard luck stories experienced by the club, which for week or so, thirty two years ago, seemed to include another encounter at Wembley.

Monday 28 May 1990

Division Two playoff final

Sunderland 0

Swindon Town 1 (McLoughlin 26)

Sunderland: Norman; Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola; Armstrong, Bracewell, Owers, Pascoe (Atkinson 69); Gates (Hauser 71), Gabbiadini.

Wembley Stadium. Attendance 72,873


Jack Clarke’s injury is a massive blow for Sunderland, but others now need to step up!


On This Day (29th February 1964): FA Cup chaos between Sunderland and Manchester United!


How many points will Sunderland pick up from their next three games?

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report