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Same competition, same date, but Sunderland found themselves in two very different scenarios just five years apart following another rollercoaster period at Roker Park. When they took on Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup on this day in 1984 the club was enjoying a spell of relative top-flight stability, yet by the time they hosted Exeter City in 1989 they’d been down to their lowest league position ever and only now were starting to get back on an even keel. The matches both happened to be round 4 replays, and after victories were secured in each, they were also the only two occasions in the decade that the team progressed beyond that stage of the tournament.
1984-85 v Tottenham Hotspur League (Milk) Cup
Sunderland would go on to reach the final for the first time and Chris Turner was seen by many as the main reason for this, with his performances against Spurs typifying his form. Phenomenal in the first tie at Roker, where he kept the visitors at bay single handily almost, he was just as good at White Hart Lane where once again the Londoners dominated for large portions of the match.
Spurs started on the front foot and took an early lead from the penalty spot, with Graham Roberts side footing in after Gordon Chisholm had tangled with Mark Falco. Without a win away from home all season things looked ominous at this point, but the Lads often saved their best for the Milk Cup and came back into things strongly.
Their leveller came following a smart break down the right, David Hodgson doing well to win possession and play the ball along for Howard Gayle to run onto, and his early cross was tucked away neatly by Clive Walker from a tight angle. The second then came when Chisholm swivelled in the box and shot past Ray Clemence, albeit via what looked like a deflection off Paul Miller. It meant the Scot had atoned for his earlier foul, with Hodgson and Gayle once again involved in the set up.
The goal came early in the second half, meaning a long rear-guard action for Sunderland as Tottenham pushed for a leveller that would have meant a second replay. Turner continued with his heroics, and just when it looked like his efforts were about to go to waste, Shaun Elliott being penalised for handball in the box as he challenged for a header, the keeper produced his best stop yet to deny Roberts’ much more powerful second penalty.
Turner dived full length to palm the attempt away and send the travelling support behind his goal wild. There were more scenes of joy ten minutes later when the full time whistle was blown just as the Lads scrambled away another chance, and having already seen off Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest it now felt like a proper cup run was in the offing.
Sadly though, league form was never as good and after losing a game of fine margins against Norwich City in the Wembley final things took a nosedive. The club slumped to relegation at the end of the season and two years later endured the hammer blow of dropping further down into the third tier. Only after the arrival of Denis Smith did things begin to look up again.
1988-89 v Exeter City League (Littlewoods Challenge) Cup
Smith completed his first task with style, guiding his side out of Division Three as champions at the first time of asking. The following season was one of stability but by 1989 the aim was much higher, and to get Sunderland back to where they had been in the pyramid when playing against Spurs.
The squad was starting to find more consistency and were in the leading pack towards the top of Division Two but had needed a late fightback to save their blushes in Devon and salvage a replay against the fourth division Grecians after a long trip, best remembered perhaps for John Kay’s late night revelry on top of a parked car and the police involvement that followed.
The first game had seen the hosts celebrate an FA Cup tie between the two clubs in 1931 by reproducing the original programme from the match. Finishing 4-2 to the Lads, the clash had attracted St James Park’s highest ever attendance and meant that co-incidentally it shared something else with Tottenham other than League Cup opponents – the Londoners’ record gate at that point was also when the Black Cats had been in town.
That had been for another FA Cup fixture in 1938 when Sunderland were the holders, but over half a century later knock out football could sometimes be seen as an inconvenience and crowd numbers would vary greatly as a result. The 18,000 + that filed into Roker for the final tie of the decade was classed as good going relatively speaking then, and on this occasion both teams gave it their all.
Exeter opened the scoring with their first attack of note through Ian Benjamin and would later round things off with a long range shot from Jim McNichol but in between those goals Sunderland made their quality tell. Colin Pascoe pounced on a slip from keeper David Walter to grab a quick equaliser and they were soon in front following a brave Gordon Armstrong header as he got on the end of a Brian Atkinson cross.
2-1 ahead at the break, Sunderland came out and scored early in the second half – just as they had done in 1984. This time it was through Eric Gates, who capitalised on a quick bit of pin ball in the penalty area and then jokingly stuck his face in the camera lens of a nearby photographer as part of his celebrations. It was a light heart moment that suggested the shackles were off; fully in control, the side were starting to cut loose and made certain of the victory when Paul Hardyman and Gates again netted.
Hardyman’s goal came via a beautifully placed penalty after a foul on Pascoe, whilst Gates got his brace once he’d diverted Atkinson’s strike past Walter when Exeter had failed to clear the ball properly. It was a rare defeat for the visitors, who would eventually finish the season as Division Four champions, whilst Sunderland would also find themselves being promoted at the end of the campaign following their subsequent quarter-final exit.
Wednesday 5 December 1984
League Cup, 4th Round replay
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Roberts (pen) 6’)
Sunderland 2 (Walker 23’, Chisholm 47’)
Sunderland: Turner; Venison, Chisholm, Elliott, Daniel; Gayle, Bennett, Proctor, Berry, Walker; Hodgson (West 78’).
White Hart Lane, attendance 25,835
Tuesday 5 December 1989
League Cup, 4th Round replay
Sunderland 5 (Pascoe 22’, Armstrong 24’, Gates 47’, 67’, Hardyman (pen) 56’)
Exeter City 2 (Benjamin 21’, McNichol 85’)
Sunderland: Carter; Agboola, Bennett, Kay, Hardyman; Owers, Atkinson, Armstrong (Brady 77’), Pascoe; Gates, Gabbiadini (Hauser 77’).
Roker Park, attendance 18,130