Had the weather been on their side in February 1991, Sunderland may have been in slightly better shape by this point of the Division One run in.
Denis Smith’s side had been keeping their head above water since the turn of the year, and with victories in the last two Roker Park outings hopes were high of more success against Wimbledon – only for heavy overnight snow to put pay to that. The fixture was then rescheduled to take place on this day, by which time the Lads had slipped into the drop zone.
Not only that, but had results gone differently at the weekend relegation would almost certainly have already been confirmed. A win at Luton Town put Sunderland back in with a shout of survival though and with the squad battling hard they were not going down without a fight, as they proved once more against the Dons.
Visiting boss Ray Harford had continued Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang reputation but the side could play a bit too and both aspects of their game had been apparent when the clubs had met at Plough Lane earlier in the season. Sunderland knew fine well that they would have to be up for another scrap, but the fear amongst some of the Wearside faithful that some members of the opposition would overstep the mark again was sadly proven to be correct.
In London the hosts had clawed back a late equaliser and whilst dropping points from winning positions would continue to be Sunderland’s Achilles heel throughout the campaign, some of the players were less than impressed to say the least with the antics of their counterparts. Although more than happy to stand up and give as good as they got, the suggestion that the likes of John Fashanu took their levels of physicality well beyond an acceptable level was born out again in the return, with Thomas Hauser often the target of their intimidatory tactics.
The striker was in the thick of things from the off, forcing an early save from Hans Segers that saw the ball hit the post. Peter Davenport then went close to poking home the rebound, and with Wimbledon struggling to clear the danger Gordon Armstrong was clearly fouled in the box only for the penalty claims to be waved away. As if that wasn’t enough, referee Paul Harrison then angered those directly behind in the Fulwell End even further when just before half time he dismissed Kevin Ball for what appeared to be him protecting his German teammate following a burst of push and shove.
The melee came when Hauser brought another close range save and Fashanu and Keith Curle decided to get in his face, only to then make a meal of it once stood up to. As Ball was being red carded Gary Bennett could be seen in the background putting a couple of Dons players back in their box after they had set their lips up, but with two more flare ups happening in the following moments and Hauser being wrestled to the ground following the latter those in red and white were astounded no further action was taken.
As feared, gamesmanship had crossed over into conning but despite being reduced to ten men Sunderland fared well against the long balls of a Wimbledon outfit that aside from everything else had been in good form. They may even have won it had Marco Gabbiadini, only just back from injury, had found a way past Segers when put through by Paul Bracewell.
As it was, the Lads had to settle for a point that whilst encouraging in the circumstances, meant things were no longer in their own hands. Things were looking bleak and in the end Sunderland did fall just short after losing on the final day at Manchester City. This relegation was nothing like some of the more recent surrenders though – the squad had performed manfully, and their efforts were recognised by the supporters, who was well as travelling in their thousands to Maine Road had just recorded the biggest attendance of the year so far at Roker for the Wimbledon match.
Fans saw a side giving its all and could at least take some pride in watching them going down swinging.
Saturday 23 April 1991
Barclays League Division One
Sunderland 0 (Ball sent off 44)
Sunderland: Norman; Owers, Bennett, Ball, Hardyman; Pascoe, Bracewell, Davenport (Ord 46), Armstrong; Hauser, Gabbiadini (Brady 77).
Wimbledon: Segers, Joseph, Phelan, Barton, Blackwell, Curle, Clarke, Sanchez, Fashanu, Scales, McGee (Newhouse 73). Sub not used: Ardley
Roker Park, attendance 24,036