Our play-off experience back in 1990 was very different from the one we experienced 20 odd days ago.
From the euphoria of stuffing the mags in their own backyard we had the disappointment of simply not showing up at Wembley – and it seemed as if we’d spend a summer licking our wounds, dusting ourselves down and going again, while Swindon took their place in the top flight.
But, we didn’t have to wallow for too long, as we were thrown a huge ray of hope. Swindon had been demoted to the third tier after being found guilty of financial irregularities.
But who would replace them in the top flight?
As beaten play-off finalists, we had a strong case. But so too, in their eyes at least, did Newcastle – they’d finished third, 12 points clear of Sunderland.
And what about Sheffield Wednesday?
Ron Atkinson’s team had been relegated from the First Division in 18th place on an incredible 43 points, 13 points ahead of 19th placed Charlton and had only gone down by virtue of the fact their goal difference was two worse than Luton, who finished in 17th place, also on 43 points.
Elsewhere in football, Italia 90 had just kicked off – and on this day in 1990, while the papers were full of Cameroon’s superb win over Maradona’s reigning World Cup holders Argentina the day before, the battle to claim a place in the top flight was taking place in boardrooms and lawyers’ offices, rather than on the pitch.
Bob Murray was supremely confident that Sunderland would emerge as the team the Football League chose to replace the Robins in the top flight. He told The Journal:
The League have no option but to promote us.
It’s quite clearly a promotion issue, and we are without a doubt the club with the best claim on that place.
The rules are quite clear. Three teams are relegated from the First Division and Sheffield Wednesday were one of those.
Newcastle cannot have a claim, you cannot stop the season 95 per cent of the way through it. The season has to run its full duration – that includes the play-offs – and Newcastle were beaten in those play-offs by us.
Of course, Newcastle saw things differently, with their General Manager, Russell Cushing, strongly believing the black and whites should claim the vacant First Division place.
It’s important to remember the play-offs were still a ‘new’ concept, and many people were still very much against this modernisation of promotion.
The rules only provide that the club which wins the play-off competition is promoted in third place.
This season the club which won the play-off is now not entitled to take its place in the First Division.
Therefore the League should revert to the original process where by the third club in the table is promoted.
In that case, Newcastle United should be promoted as they finished six points clear of the team in fourth place.
Sheffield Wednesday believed they had a strong claim, too, and in The Journal, Paul Nunn believed this was the easiest way of resolving the League’s dilemma – precedence, he said, favoured this course of action, as it’s what happened when Peterborough encountered a similar fate to Swindon in 1968.
Newcastle’s argument was based on the fact that the Swindon decision rendered the play-offs null and void, while Sunderland’s claim seemed the most logical for the Football League to make.
However, as The Journal noted, logic hasn’t always been the hallmark of Football League decisions.
And so, three football clubs were in limbo – in the second week of June they didn’t know for sure which league they’d be playing in the following season.
The Football League said they hoped their League Management Committee would make a decision the following week – although with four of the six members on holiday and out of the country, they couldn’t make any promises. Only Liverpool’s Sir John Smith, and York City’s Michael Sinclair – Denis Smith’s former chairman – were on UK soil.
(Incidentally, a matter of weeks later, it was Sinclair who pulled Harry Redknapp from the wreckage of a car crash that killed five people, including Redknapp’s Managing Director at Bournemouth, Brian Tiler. Sinclair pulled a ‘mangled and petrol covered’ Redknapp from the wreckage of the crash in Latina, south of Rome, to safety.)
And so, we waited – with our fate shrouded in uncertainty. But we had hope – and that’s more than we had a week or so earlier.