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On This Day (9 May 1987): Sunderland finish in play-offs after being on the brink of survival!

We knew a win would be enough to seal safety in Division Two, and it was going so well...

It’s very easy to forget that the appointment of Lawrie McMenemy as the new Sunderland manager was a bit of a coup by Sir Tom Cowie back in the summer of 1985, and was widely celebrated on Wearside.

He was given a remit to take The Lads back to Division One following our relegation under Len Ashurst who had also taken us to the League Cup final as we failed to beat the drop, but we went on to finish three points above the drop zone to fall into Division Three in his first full season.

Mainly due to the cost of severing McMenemy from his £150,000-per-year contract, he was fatefully allowed to continue into a second season, and as we found ourselves in another relegation battle following a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United at Roker Park, the greatest mystery was why he was still in the job?

Bob Murray (left) and Lawrie McMenemy (right)

This all changed, however, five days after that defeat to The Blades at Roker, when confusion reigned as McMenemy was no longer manager of the club, but rumours quickly spread that he was not actually sacked but had simply disappeared.

Whatever the truth, the result was still the same, Sunderland sat two points above the drop with seven games remaining and had picked up only one point from the previous six games.

It was a huge job to ensure our status in the second division, and numerous names were linked with taking the job on in the long term, but many of those didn’t want to manage in Division Three so weren’t willing to jump in with the stakes so high. This meant someone being parachuted in until the end of the season, and the new chairman, Bob Murray, went for a familiar face.

Bob Stokoe, the messiah who masterminded our FA Cup win in 1973, was the man tasked with picking up the points from the final seven games to avoid Sunderland’s first ever drop into the third tier in our history.

Soccer - Sunderland AFC Photocall - Roker Park
Bob Stokoe attempted to pull of another miracle when he returned to Roker back in 1987
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Considering we had only picked up one point from the eighteen on offer before Stokoe took the job, it was an achievement that the temporary manager managed to take eight points from his first six games, which included a victory over Steve Coppell’s high-flying Crystal Palace who were pushing for promotion.

This min-revival meant that we went into our final game of the season knowing that a victory would ensure survival against the drop.

Our opponents were Allan Clarke’s Barnsley, and the former Leeds United striker, who was in the Leeds side at Wembley in 1973, had navigated the South Yorkshire side into the safety of mid-table which meant they had nothing to play for but pride.

They boasted a familiar face in Roger Wylde who had made sixteen appearances for The Lads in 1984, as well as Steve Agnew who went on to sign for Sunderland under Mick Buxton and a young John Beresford, who was a vital part of the mags throwing away a Premier League title in the mid-1990’s.

Alan Kennedy Sunderland 1987
Alan Kennedy played a part in Sunderland’s opening goal against Barnsley
Photo Dan Smith/ Allsport/Getty Images

The biggest crowd of the season so far arrived at Roker Park, where, in a season of averaging around 13,000, an expectant crowd of just over 19,000 were in attendance hoping that Stokoe could perform yet another miracle, and just before the half hour things were looking good.

A predictably scrappy game burst into life when a fine passing move from Sunderland following a tough tackle from Steve Doyle to win back possession, resulted in the ball being at the feet of Alan Kennedy wide on the left mid-way inside the Barnsley half as Sunderland attacked the Roker End in the first half.

The Penshaw-born full-back, who won two European Cups with Liverpool, took one took to get the ball out of his feet and drove a ball to the back post, which met the head of Keith Bertschin on the corner of the six-yard box to send the ball inch-perfect across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.

It was Bertschin’s first league goal at Roker Park and the release of tension was visible as the players went off celebrating down the running track surrounding the pitch in front of the Clock Stand.

Keith Bertschin

Our tails were up now, on the pitch and off it as the home crowd drove the Sunderland players forward, and only two minutes later we doubled our lead.

Impressive work down the left touchline by Gordon Armstrong was rewarded with a corner that Mark Proctor sent deep to the back post where Gary Bennett found his header cleared off the line by Futcher, whose clearance fell to the edge of the box only to find Frank Gray, who hit it first time right into the top corner of the net.

Half an hour gone, two goals to the good, two fantastic goals with the players stepping up and the fans getting behind The Lads. It felt like job done.

Two minutes before half-time, however, Barnsley, who had hardly threatened, produced something out of nothing. An innocuous throw-in mid-way inside the Sunderland half found John MacDonald a few yards outside the corner of the penalty area in front of the Main Stand.

As MacDonald attempted to change direction with the ball, Jim Dobbin was running behind him and smashed the ball from twenty-yards into the top corner of the net giving Iain Hesford no chance in the Sunderland goal leaving the Fulwell End with nothing to do but applaud.

Eric Gates

The nerves were jangling at half-time and the game was edgy in the opening period of the second half, until on the hour mark, Sunderland were given a golden opportunity to restore the two-goal lead.

Eric Gates was deemed to have been fouled in the area after Dave Swindlehurst played the ball into his feet and despite the protests of the Barnsley players, we had a penalty in front of the Fulwell End that, if converted, could all but seal our Division Two status for another year.

The man to step up was Mark Proctor, who had been impressive in the game in pulling the strings in the Sunderland midfield. Although the penalty was well struck to the goalkeepers right, the placement was far enough into the corner, which gave Clive Baker in the Barnsley goal a chance to save it and push the ball out of danger.

Inevitably, four minutes later, Barnsley were level, and it was a former Sunderland player as it so often is. A long kick downfield from the Barnsley goalkeeper landed on the edge of the Sunderland box before any player touched the ball and unfortunately for us, it was a Barnsley touch that knocked the ball into the path of Roger Wylde who finished to put the game level.

Mark Proctor

Another four minutes later, it all completely unravelled as Barnsley went in front when Glen Thomas slid the ball under Iain Hesford from close range to complete a disastrous eight minutes for Sunderland in which we missed a penalty and conceded two goals.

As the minutes ebbed away, they only thing that could save us from having to fight it out in what was then a promotion/relegation play-off, was the result between Birmingham City and Shrewsbury Town going our way, and it didn’t. Shrewsbury took maximum points to leapfrog Sunderland and condemn us to a showdown with Gillingham from Division Three.

Saturday 9th May, 1987

Today Football League Division Two

Roker Park

Sunderland 2-3 Barnsley

[Bertschin 28’, Gray 30’ (Proctor missed pen 61’) - Dobbin 43’, Wylde 65’, Thomas 69’]

Sunderland: Hesford, Doyle, Kennedy, Hetze, Gray, Bennett, Armstrong, Swindlehurst, Bertschin, Proctor, Gates (Buchanan)

Barnsley: Baker, Joyce, Beresford, Thomas, Gray, Futcher, Wylde, Agnew (Jeffels), Dobbin, MacDonald, Clarke

Attendance: 19,059


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