Sunderland were on the road to redemption under Denis Smith, and as Christmas approached, the lads were at the top of the Division Three table.
The signing of Gabbiadini had helped steady the ship after a solid yet unspectacular start, and a run of eight wins in nine games had renewed optimism among supporters.
The early November home game versus Southend had seemed a watershed moment; a 7-0 victory making a huge statement of intent, and three weeks later a crowd of 6750 gathered to watch the lads knock in seven again – this time in a Freight Rover Trophy game against fellow Division Three side Rotherham.
In these days, the first team generally played in every first-team fixture, but Sunderland were without four regulars who were missing through injury. Right back John Kay, striker Gabbiadini, skipper Gary Bennett and midfielder Gordon Armstrong were all ruled out, replaced by George Burley, Keith Bertschin, David Corner, and Paul Atkinson, the latter having been a regular for much of the season himself, but missing out on the previous game due to injury.
For transfer-listed Scottish international Burley, who, like Eric Gates and Frank Gray, was a big-money McMenemy signing, it was his first start for seven months, having lost his place to Kay, who’d arrived from Wimbledon during the summer.
The Freight Rover Trophy was at a group stage, and by virtue of the fact Sunderland and Rotherham had both beaten the other team in their group – Scarborough – both teams were through to the next round, with only the prospect of a guaranteed home game in the first knockout round at stake. And Denis Smith was taking the game seriously, wanting to ensure no unnecessary travel, and give his side the best possible chance of three points when the Millers came back to Roker Park.
I want to play at home in the next round, and I don’t want Rotherham coming back here next month for a league match, thinking they can come to Roker and get a good result.
Sunderland certainly took Smith’s words seriously as the lads stormed to a 6-1 half time lead, which in truth could – and should – have been a whole lot more.
In the opening few minutes, Gates failed to control the ball six yards out, while Paul Lemon, put clean through, saw his shot saved by keeper Kelham O’Hanlon. The former Boro stopper had been on Smith’s radar as a replacement for Iain Hesford, but it’s safe to say any interest ended on this night, as Sunderland ran riot.
The scoring opened on seven minutes, with Corner scoring from close range after a low Lemon cross, and the lead was doubled 10 minutes later by Burley, who drove in perfectly from 25 yards out to register his first – and only – goal for Sunderland.
In between the two opening goals, Bertschin, Lemon and Burley had excellent chances to score, and Bertschin missed another great opportunity from a Gates pass, before the third was added by Lemon with a low, left-foot shot.
Rotherham did pull a goal back after Owers deflected a Dungworth free kick past Hesford on 34, but it was Owers himself who made amends minutes later, heading in Atkinson’s cross.
Vice-captain MacPhail had picked up a yellow card, and with Bennett’s injury concerns lingering, Smith subbed the Scottish defender on 41 to ensure he didn’t have any further central defensive headaches.
Bertschin finally got on the scoresheet, adding another two with 45 minutes on the clock, and with the 6-1 scoreline looking like job done, Smith sent on John Moore to replace Gates.
It was Moore himself who added the seventh in a comparatively uneventful second half, heading a Bertschin cross past O’Hanlon.
After the game, Smith said:
I thought we played even better than we did against Southend three weeks ago when we hit seven – particularly in the first half.
It was very enjoyable and we made it look fairly comfortable in the first half, when we scored six and could have had ten.
While goals weren’t too much trouble on Wearside, over the river on this day 36 years ago, Newcastle were searching for a striker to replace the injured Paul Goddard.
And, having had a loan deal seemingly lined up for Niall Quinn, Newcastle’s Willie McFaul was disappointed to receive news that Arsenal boss George Graham had put a block on the deal after his team suffered a couple of knocks.
Quinn was still expected to leave Highbury in the near future, but Arsenal preferred a permanent exit – with Derby County rumoured to be a likely destination in a £350,000 deal.
Of course, Quinny stayed at Arsenal until March 1990, when he linked up with Peter Reid, who was Howard Kendall’s player-coach, at Manchester City.
We don’t know which Arsenal players were struggling with knocks that week, but whoever they are, we’re eternally grateful!