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Sunderland have made this step up only once before, so how did we get on?

We have to go back to 1988 to find ourselves in the same position as we are today following promotion from the third tier - how did we get on, and is there anything we can learn?

We will soon be approaching the opening day of what will be Sunderland’s 133rd season competing in the Football League and it is only the second time during that time that we have made the step up from the third tier up to the second.

Granted, for a long stretch of that time the Football League didn’t contain a third tier, or a second, but you get my point.

To find the first, and only previous occasion this rare event took place, we have to go back to the year that saw the beginnings of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a year that contained a summer that saw Bobby Robson’s England suffer a disastrous European Championships in West Germany, crashing out in the group stage without a single point, although I’ll leave it to our Irish fans to continue reminiscing over all that.

Soccer - European Championships - Euro 88 West Germany - Group Two - Ireland v England - Neckarstadion
Here’s one for our Irish fans to enjoy...
Photo by Peter Robinson - PA Images via Getty Images

Yes, it was the summer of 1988 and things were finally looking up when it came to our football club after things had gone horribly wrong following relegation from Division One in 1984-85.

Lawrie McMenemy had arrived to much fanfare after Len Ashurst was shown the door by Sir Tom Cowie following a return to the second tier and defeat in the League Cup final to Norwich City, but after almost three seasons he was gone, and Bob Stokoe couldn’t save us from dropping to Division Three.

So the second half of the 1980’s had been pretty bleak, that was until Bob Murray pulled a rabbit out of the hat by raiding York City for their manager Denis Smith, who also brought his assistant from the Minstermen with him in the form of Viv Busby.

Bob Murray unveiling his new management team to the media in the summer of 1987

They immediately went to work in picking people’s chins up off the ground and reminded not only the players but the fans and local media what a huge club we were. They exuded confidence that they were the people we needed to take us back out of the lower half of the Football League and get us back on track, and they did exactly that.

By the time we faced Northampton Town in our final home game of the season on Monday 2nd May, we were collecting the Division Three trophy and Denis Smith was being held aloft by the players for a lap of honour in front of 29,454 at Roker Park (an attendance that was only beaten on two occasions before we moved to the Stadium of Light in 1997), as Denis Smith described the scenes and his thoughts at the time in his autobiography Just One of Seven:

To have nearly 30,000 inside the stadium for the final home game, a 3-1 victory over Northampton on the May bank holiday Monday was fantastic - a joy. That victory also clinched the title for us, which is very special indeed and one of my greatest memories in football is being chaired by my players around Roker Park that evening as the massive crowd rose to acclaim our achievement.

We’d won promotion at the first time of asking. It was a glorious victory, one which signalled a sea-change in the fortunes of Sunderland AFC, and one of my proudest achievements.

“One of my proudest achievements” - Denis Smith

But, as in the case of any promotion, the thoughts of the manager quickly turned to preparing for the challenge of stepping up in the season ahead as Smith explained:

Any promotion-winning manager will tell you that as soon as the final whistle goes on the game that clinches elevation to a higher division the planning begins for the new challenge. That planning can be upset by a number of variables along the way, but the most difficult to overcome are injuries.

This is especially true when the funds are not available to strengthen, which meant not a single player was brought in to boost the ranks ahead of the opening day of the season. This obviously raised concerns about our chances of holding our own in Barclays League Division Two, concerns that looked justified when Sunderland were still looking for a first victory six games into the new season.

A goalless draw at Shrewsbury Town in late September, in a game where the red and white tractor John Kay broke his leg, meant we sat 21st in the table and desperate for our first three points of the campaign.

But, the panic button wasn’t pressed and back-to-back victories over Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic and Norman Hunter’s Leeds United at Roker Park managed to lift us back into the safety of mid-table.

Marco Gabbiadini with the Third Division winners trophy in May 1988

Both victories were helped along by an actual new transfer into the club, with new signing Billy Whitehurst making the starting XI in both games as well as scoring the winning goal in the 2-1 win over Leeds United, but it wasn’t the most traditional of methods of picking out a player to add to a squad as Denis Smith explained:

His move to Sunderland came by chance as I met him when his club Reading were on a pre-season tour of the north-east and were using the facilities at Durham to train. I walked into the showers and saw him there. Despite being covered from head to foot in bruises, Billy was instantly recognisable.

“Bloody hell, Billy. What have you been up to?”

“Oh, last night I got turned over by a couple of bouncers”

To be honest that’s when I knew I could get him because I was fairly certain Reading would want to get rid of him after such an incident!

Our form continued to improve and by late January we sitting 6th with an outside chance of pushing for the play-offs, but a run of one win in nine across February and March put that ambition to rest.

Following a 2-2 draw against David Pleat’s Leicester City on the final day of the season, we had finished a very respectable 11th in Division Two.

Young players such as Tony Cullen, Brian Atkinson, Paul Williams and Warren Hawke all made their debuts throughout the season and it was all looking pretty positive as the season closed with a mid-table placing deemed a successful return to the Second Division.

Brian Atkinson was one of many young players to make their debut for Sunderland under Denis Smith

More pieces had been added to the jigsaw throughout the season by Denis Smith, especially in the form of Tony Norman from Hull City, who replaced Ian Hesford between the sticks in a deal that broke Sunderland’s transfer record and saw Billy Whitehurst move in the opposite direction and return to one his former clubs.

It was by no means a spectacular season on the radar of our history, probably the equivalent to a dot-ball for most, but it was vitally important to establish ourselves at the next level just as it is in the season coming up in the present day.

Finishing in what was essentially mid-table mediocrity was vital to what came next in terms of reaching the play-offs the following year and returning to the top flight under Denis Smith, where giving himself something to build on during this first season in the Second Division was perhaps as big an achievement as anything else he did as Sunderland manager.

Young players such as Gordon Armstrong, Gary Owers and Marco Gabbiadini had another season of first team football under their belts, where Armstrong actually recorded 53 appearances in all competitions during the season.

Soccer - FA Cup Fourth Round - Sunderland
Tony Norman was an important signing for Sunderland as we established ourselves in Division Two in 1988-89
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

This meant that although the manager was able to add big players such as Tony Norman in important positions on the pitch, it was as much about developing what the club already had on the books to move forward, but the club's finances in the late 1980s meant Smith didn’t really have much of a choice.

It was a season that required patience from the terraces as we began with four draws and two defeats in the first six which suggested it was going to be a long old season, but it quickly turned and became what was a success story as a part of what Denis Smith went on to ultimately achieve.

We have no idea how next season will play out, early predictions are ranging from pushing for promotion to surviving, as it probably did in the summer of 1988, but I reckon most of us would take a season like we had back in 1988-89.

A season that feels like we’re progressing and moving in the right direction, we don’t really ask for that much do we? Maybe we do, I don’t know, but this season may end up testing what we want and how quickly we’re prepared to wait for it.


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