In 1985 Sunderland reached Wembley and were enjoying their longest unbroken topflight spell since 1970, yet a year later they found themselves teetering on the edge of an abyss. A second consecutive drop, this time into the unknown depths of the third tier, looked like a distinct possibility and the mood around Roker was matched by the side’s lowly league placing.
As far as falls from grace go, it was one of the biggest in the club’s history. This was despite the side being hotly tipped for an immediate return to Division One at the start the start of 1985-86, with big things expected of highly paid new managing director Lawrie McMenemy and his expensively assembled squad. McMenemy was a big name and had looked to repeat the formula of his previous success elsewhere, but he was unable to get his players to gel and with two matches left they were back in the relegation zone.
What made it harder to take was the fact that Norwich City, who had beaten the Lads in the Milk Cup final before coming down with them, had already confirmed their own promotion back into the big league. Heavy defeats during the run in at Wimbledon and Brighton & Hove Albion meanwhile looked costly for Sunderland, who between January and March had only won one league game out of 12.
All was not lost however ahead of a home fixture against Shrewsbury Town on this day; results on Wearside had picked during April and loan signing Andy Dibble was making such an impression in goal that he was about to be called up by Wales the following morning. His good form continued too in what was a slow burner against the Shrews; the visitors were not yet sure of survival themselves and boss Chic Bates set them up to try and hold on for the single point needed to confirm Division Two status.
He admitted afterwards that his intention was to frustrate the crowd, but the biggest league attendance of the year so far not only stuck with Sunderland, but actively got behind them too. A combination of poor performances and the bleak financial situation in the region had done little for recent gates, but the supporters had rallied in their team’s hour of need and were greatly encouraged as the action developed.
Captain Shaun Elliott had a header cleared off the line and Dibble made a flying stop to deny Gary Hackett. Mark Proctor then tested Steve Perks, whilst in the second half Howard Gayle was denied on several occasions. When the opener did come it was simple, and it sparked joyous scenes; Eric Gates nodded home a Proctor corner having inexplicably found himself unmarked, and whilst he was mobbed by his teammates the normally restrained McMenemy was on the touchline punching the air.
From that point the Lads jumped up a notch, pinging the ball around with Alan Kennedy looking the part. Proctor extended the lead with a quality strike from outside the area and in the closing moments both Dibble and Gary Bennett stopped certain goals with some excellent play. The fans relished the display, and the side were given a great reception at full time as they took a bow in front of the Fulwell End, with comments in the press later suggesting that ‘The Roker roar was reborn’.
Victory meant that whilst the job wasn’t quite done, things were now in Sunderland’s hands. They got over the line at the weekend with another home win, after which McMenemy made his own gesture towards the stands – although his infamous waving of a white hanky was nowhere near as well received.
Not only that, but the assumed apology proved empty and as the mini revival faded and the general slide resumed he quickly dropped a shoulder. SAFC were left in tatters and the ‘good’ times, like beating Shrewsbury, were not enough to protect his legacy.
Tuesday 29 April 1986
Canon League Division Two
Sunderland 2 (Gates 63, Proctor 83)
Shrewsbury Town 0
Sunderland: Dibble; Venison, Gray, Bennett, Kennedy; Ford, Elliott, Proctor, Gayle; Wallace, Gates. Unused: Atkinson.
Roker Park, attendance 15,507