Sunderland’s unexpected and belated promotion in 1990 had meant Denis Smith and his team had started the 90/91 behind the proverbial eight ball.
With limited time to lay plans for a Division One campaign, rather than the Division Two season they were expecting, only Kevin Ball and Peter Davenport had arrived to strengthen a team that two seasons prior had been playing Division Three football.
The season had gone relatively well, all things considered, however the team had been hampered by long-term injuries to Marco Gabbiadini and Colin Pascoe – as well as German striker Thomas Hauser – and as a result youngsters David Rush and Keiron Brady were given leading roles in the run-in.
Derby County and Luton Town were Sunderland’s rivals for the two available relegation spots (the top flight was increasing in numbers for the following campaign), and the lads had done their survival chances the world of good with a 2-1 win at Luton Town on Kenilworth Road’s plastic pitch.
That win had momentarily put Sunderland’s fate in our own hands – two points behind Luton with a game in hand – however, we only managed a draw at home to Wimbledon, meaning the balance of power swung back to Bedfordshire as quickly as it had leaned towards the north east. Sunderland had two games left – at home to Arsenal and away at Manchester City – but the weekend following the midweek, rearranged Dons fixture was an empty weekend due to international fixtures.
So, what did Sunderland do with their free weekend before two huge games? A few days off to relax? Extra time on the training field?
Nope. They headed up to Berwick to play a testimonial game for long-serving Rangers defender Brian Marshall.
Denis Smith took a strong team up to Shielfield Park, including star striker Gabbiadini and other first-team regulars Kevin Ball, Gary Owers, Gary Bennett, Paul Bracewell, Paul Hardyman and Peter Davenport.
It seems remarkable today that not only would such a game be scheduled for that point in the season but some of our most important players were wheeled out, however this was the tail-end of the era in which benefit games often punctuated the final throes of the season – and Denis obviously wanted to do the right thing for all involved.
The Berwick side included four former players – including striker Scott Sloan who had subsequently signed for Newcastle – and while a pretty much one-sided game ensued, Sunderland struggled to get a legitimate goal chalked up.
Kevin Ball had the ball in the net twice in the first half – on both occasions, the referee spotted an infringement few other people in the ground saw – while at the other end, Sloan went close to opening the scoring.
On 20 minutes, the Newcastle striker did put the home side one up, however, slotting past keeper Tim Carter.
The second half was all Sunderland, with Gabbiadini, Hauser and Davenport all being denied by the home keeper, while Ball missed a completely open goal after being set up by Gabbiadini.
It was Marco who got a deserved equaliser on 75, having been set up by Paul Hardyman, and the entertaining game ended in a draw.
Now, attention turned back to the serious stuff...
Berwick Rangers 1-1 Sunderland
Sloan 20, Gabbiadini 75
Sunderland: Carter, Trigg, Hardyman, Bennett, Ball, Bracewell (Wales 46), Moore, Owers, Hauser, Gabbiadini, Davenport. Subs not used: Brodie, Atkinson.