When I look back on it, the Sunderland team I grew up watching only had a smattering of local lads. The two most prominent – Gordon Armstrong and Gary Owers – were still in their late teens, and were drawing attention from higher up the footballing pyramid.
Armstrong had had a tough start to his Sunderland career. He’d made his debut as a 17-year-old towards the end of the 84/85 season as we hurtled towards relegation under Len Ashurt, and the following season made 14 appearances in the second tier during Lawrie McMenemy’s first year in charge.
The following season was his breakthrough year, as the 19-year-old played 48 times in all competitions (46 of them starts) as we were relegated to the third tier for the first time.
Both Armstrong and Owers hailed from Newcastle, and wherever Owers' allegiances lay when he was a kid, Gordon was red and white through and through.
If you think growing up as a Sunderland fan is tough enough, try growing up as a Sunderland supporter in black and white territory.
I think it was for this reason I always felt a real affinity with Armstrong when I joined the Roker Park crowd.
While I wasn’t from Newcastle – thank the lord – I did grow up in Consett, which was probably 60/40 mag territory at the time; although the gobshite nature of the black and whites, and their need to do everything wearing their gravy-stained shirts, often made that seem more.
On the field, Armstrong was a grafter. A tough, tough player, and while he had some finesse he wasn’t a player who’d regularly skip past a load of opponents. He was effective, a player who was highly valued and regarded by his teammates.
Whether it was the fact he was a local lad, a local lad from north of the Tyne, or because he’d risen to prominence during the worst season in our club’s history to that point I don’t know, but he was sometimes – unfairly – near the front of the queue for some crowd criticism if things weren’t going away.
But he didn’t ever let that get to him – outwardly at least. As he notched up more career appearances, he began notching a few goals. He could be relied upon to contribute high single figures most seasons – including six in the top flight during 1990-91 – and bagged 10 the following season; including his most famous Sunderland goal, in the FA Cup Quarter Final at Roker Park.
In total, he scored 61 times in his decade at the club, which was celebrated by a testimonial game against Bobby Robson’s Porto.
His bravery meant he scored a good number of headers – his Chelsea goal certainly wasn’t a one-off – but he was also a good free-kick taker; although in hindsight he probably didn’t take, or score from, as many as he should have.
He was a hugely talented and effective player, rarely injured, and at one point was highly sought-after by some top flight clubs – coming very close to joining Southampton, at one point. In hindsight, maybe he should have gone.
Still, he stayed at the club and is one of our record appearance makers – claiming seventh place as his own.
Aside from the obvious, there are three Gordon Armstrong memories I have that stand out above the others.
In third place is his ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ Moonwalk celebration at Filbert Street...
In second place, it’s his rocket of a free kick against Portsmouth at Roker, which was almost mirrored by Chris Waddle a few years later.
But in first place was meeting him and Iain Hesford at Metroland as a kid.
It was just after Metroland had opened and it was the most exciting thing to have happened in pretty much my life to that point. One day, we went down and Armstrong and Hesford were there with a Metro Radio DJ whose name escapes me for the moment, although it may have been Clive Warren.
Despite being in something approaching enemy territory, they were welcomed fully – while the rivalry with Newcastle was there, and very strong, then, it was different. Maybe more respectful. I don’t know.
We all had the crack with the two players, got some photos and then Gordon somehow chose me to win about 25 record singles. They were obviously demos that Metro Radio had been sent in that no one wanted (‘ah, I need something to give away to some kids, what’s around’) but – by sheer virtue of the fact Gordon had chosen me to be the new owner, they were cherished.
Well, until I played them. But you can’t win them all.