Sunderland have had plenty of intriguing trips to Wigan Athletic, not least a very enjoyable victory there earlier this season, and it all started with a visit to the Latics 35 years ago today.
Things started in good spirits, with Sunderland fans making the most of the ‘facilities’ in the Springfield Park away end. Their mud sliding antics later in the game have gone down in folklore, whilst in another section of the ground members of the travelling press pack were also forced to go onto the terraces to get a suitable view of the action – the media area being oversubscribed seemingly.
Redevelopment had already commenced on the stadium, but the pitch itself was also in desperate need of some attention. Shared with a local rugby league outfit, the surface was like a quagmire prior to kick off even and the longer the match went on the worse it got. The poor conditions did little to ease tensions during an ill tempered affair, and by full time the red and white army were far from impressed – but it had nothing to do with the prospect of a journey home whilst covered in clarts.
Referee Michael Peck was the main cause of the disgruntlement, with a late call from the official denying the Lads what seemed like three hard earned points. It was one of several disputed decisions, the first of which had come in the first half when Gordon Armstrong looked to have been fouled in the penalty area, only to be awarded a free kick instead.
Up to that point Sunderland had been looking to take control. Although passing the ball was proving difficult, they were trying to be positive and commit bodies forward, so it came as a shock when the hosts went ahead through Paul Cook’s low shot. Denis Smith’s side attempted to get straight back into it however, and Gary Bennett soon went close when his header was deflected onto the woodwork.
It wasn’t long into the second half that they were level, with Eric Gates setting away Marco Gabbiadini, who made it look easy as he skipped past a challenge and rounded the goalkeeper. The G Force was fully established by this point and the move came as no surprise to their muddied fans, although the partnership was obviously less familiar to Wigan, whose in house commentator and programme had both referred to the scorer as ‘Mario’.
Gates meanwhile was about to start suffering the ire of Wigan’s fans and management. With Paul Beesley already on a booking for a late challenge on the forward he was dismissed moments after the equaliser for going through his man again. Both fouls were clearly worthy of cautions, yet Gates’ reputation as a supposed diver led to him receiving cat calls from the terraces and later getting into a heated exchange with Wigan boss Ray Mathias.
The Ferryhill man had also been cautioned in the aftermath of the red card and as the temperature rose the tackles began flying in. The sending off prompted a reshuffle at the back for Wigan too, with Wearside born Alan Kennedy now joined in defence by David Hamilton – another former player who was once an unused substitute in Ian Porterfield’s testimonial.
Undeterred by all the commotion, a brilliant turn and finish saw Gates make it 2-1 but just when a deserved win was about to be confirmed a staggering injury time incident left Sunderland fuming. With Wigan fans filing out Iain Hesford claimed a cross only for Steve Senior to force the ball out of his hands and over the line – leaving supporters and players alike astonished, not least Bennett who was shown a yellow for remonstrating.
Hesford too was sanctioned afterwards, later being fined for his reaction at full time when he raced towards the ref whilst his teammates trudged off; their white shorts and socks caked in mud summing up the mood. It had been an incident packed game, and the fixture has gone on to throw up plenty more drama since.
Saturday 12 March 1988
Barclays League Division Three
Wigan Athletic 2 (Cook 31, Senior 90)
Sunderland 2 (Gabbiadini 48, Gates 69)
Sunderland: Hesford; Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Agboola; Owers, Gray, Lemon, Armstrong; Gates, Gabbiadini (Bertschin). Unused: Doyle.
Springfield Park, attendance 6,944