Sunderland may have just exited the FA Cup following a replay at Oxford United at this point in 1989, but the next league fixture offered Denis Smith and his team the perfect opportunity to hit back.
Having drawn on Wearside in the 3rd round a week earlier before losing the subsequent replay at the Manor Ground four days later, the Lads welcomed Oxford back to Roker Park on this day – only this time it was points that were up for grabs as the club looked to establish itself in the second tier having been promoted as Division Three champions after 1987-88.
A comfortable 4-2 win at Oxford back in November had kept the Black Cats’ impressive form back at that level going and whilst the cup elimination meant the side missed out on a glamour tie at Manchester United there was still plenty to play for – with a Play-Off spot still not out of the question.
Smith made two changes to his starting XI for the Barclays League fixture, with Gary Owers regaining his spot having come on as a substitute on Wednesday and John Cornforth replacing Marco Gabbiadini, who had been sent off on the same night.
Steve Doyle was the other man to miss out, with the change in midfield leaving a place on the bench for Paul McKenzie. The Scot wouldn’t be called upon in the end though, and this proved to be the nearest he got to first team action whilst at the club.
In contrast, Owers was making himself a regular having broken through the season before and would eventually become a stalwart of almost a decade.
Always a consistent and energetic presence when involved, his desire saw him put Sunderland ahead inside a few minutes – the goal proving to be decisive and yet disputed in equal measure.
After forcing the ball over the line from a fumbled cross, Owers was accused by the U’s back line of kicking it out of goalkeeper Alan Judge’s hands; referee Davis Scott was unmoved by the calls however, vehement though they were.
Interestingly, visiting manager Brian Horton was unimpressed with his players over the incident and rather than using it as an excuse when speaking to the press afterwards he instead chastised them for not showing similar determination.
Les Ward, writing for the next day’s Sunday Mirror also reported however that Judge was expected to sign a new two year deal that coming week, and the stoppers full length dive with 51 minutes played ensured the score remained at 1-0.
The save denied Colin Pascoe what would have been an excellent goal, but in a closely fought encounter other chances were few and far between.
Richard Hill, who had notched in both cup games, had the Yellows’ only real opening and thankfully for the Lads he blazed well wide when through on goal in the first half. His team were out of luck when they played at Old Trafford later in the month too, going down 4-0.
Sunderland meanwhile had the weekend off, having followed up the Oxford trilogy with another narrow victory at Bournemouth. Once back in action a sticky patch in February and March killed off hopes of a successive promotion, but wins such as the one seen on this day had shown that the Rokerites were capable of more.
Saturday 14 January 1989
Barclays League Division Two
Sunderland 1 (Owers 5)
Oxford United 0
Sunderland: Norman; Bennett, MacPhail (Agboola 36), Ord, Gray; Owers, Lemon, Armstrong, Pascoe; Gates, Cornforth. Unused: McKenzie.
Roker Park, attendance 12, 853