During the summer of 1990 football fans on Wearside came agonisingly close to an amazing double. With promotion achieved, albeit following a Football League investigation into Play-Off final opponents Swindon Town, supporters were able to sit back and watch the action unfold in Italy as England battled in the World Cup - the Three Lions came within a whisker of winning the competition too, but after overcoming the disappointment of their semi-final loss, their exploits still afforded them a warm welcome once back home.
England’s progress helped reignite passion for the game and saw the squad become flavour of the month.
It meant too that Sunderland’s first home game back in Division One, played 32 years ago today, had an extra element of glamour with visitors Tottenham Hotspur including both Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker in their ranks.
The pair had enjoyed fantastic tournaments and were two of the most talked about players in the country, although only one of them was given a good reception from a bumper Roker Park attendance – Gazza’s recent efforts still not being enough to let him off an evening of continual ribbing for both his Newcastle United links and his supposedly portly build.
Prior to the World Cup Lineker had ended the previous season as top scorer in Division One, and whilst it was mainly his goals that had fired Spurs to a 3rd place finish their manager Terry Venables had assembled a side full of other attacking talent, not least future Sunderland forward Paul Stewart, who at that point was one of the most expensive players in English football.
The newly promoted Rokerites would need to be at their best to shackle their opponents then, with Denis Smith handing Kevin Ball his debut to try and help them do so.
The plan worked a treat, with Ball lining up alongside captain Gary Bennett and the pair quickly striking up an understanding.
Their rear-guard action went a long way to thwarting Spurs’ attacking instincts, and after a frenzied opening in which the tackles flew in from both side Sunderland looked good value as worked their way to a point – going close to the win even when their own star striker Marco Gabbiadini flashed a shot just wide in front of the Fulwell End with almost the last kick.
Although the game remained goalless the final whistle that came seconds later was greeted approvingly by the home crowd, who had been highley vocal throughout on a balmy evening that had been perfect for football; the temperatures might not have quite reached Mediterranean standards, but there’d been enough endeavour to suggest that Sunderland could match some of the best players the world had to offer.
The Lads would go extremely close to staying amongst the elite come the end of the season too, but a harsh final day relegation ended up feeling even more painful than watching a penalty shootout defeat to West Germany had done ten months prior.
Tuesday 28 August 1990
Barclays League Division One
Tottenham Hotspur 0
Sunderland: Norman; Kay, Bennett, Ball, Agboola; Owers, Bracewell, Armstrong, Hardyman (Cullen); Davenport, Gabbiadini. Unused: Hauser
Roker Park, attendance 30,214