1987-88 had seen the fans falling back in love with Sunderland AFC again. A Division Three title and the emergence of the Eric Gates/Marco Gabbiadini ‘G-Force’ had helped heal some of the wounds suffered in the years that preceded it, and the celebrations were already in full swing by the time the final fixture of the campaign was played 35 years ago today.
A busy week had seen promotion confirmed at Port Vale and the championship secured at Roker Park a little over 48 hours later. The home victory over Northampton Town was followed by a trophy presentation and subsequent lap of honour around the ground, and with thousands of supporters now landing in South Yorkshire the party was set to continue against Rotherham United.
While the final fixture was an opportunity for Denis Smith’s team to sign off in style, the hosts had other things on their mind. They began the day still in with a shout of avoiding relegation, but hopes of a dramatic rescue mission were soon put out when the champions took an early lead through a familiar source. Turning in the middle of the park, Gates played a quick one-two with John MacPhail before putting through an inch-perfect slide rule ball for Marco to run onto and steer in with confidence. Fans had seen the pair combine time and time again, and this was a classic example of the duo at their best.
A foul on Eric Gates, who had just linked up smartly with Steve Doyle, gave Sunderland a penalty shorty after the half-hour mark. MacPhail had been as integral to the promotion charge as the side’s strikers, and he put the spot kick away in trademark fashion – but only after a couple of delays. First up, police officers needed to wrestle an over-exuberant pitch invader away, and then the referee stopped Monty mid-way through his first run-up due to what appeared to be encroachment. The classy defender had missed his first spot kick of the season a few days earlier at home to Northampton, but made no mistake here.
Despite looking home and hosed already, not everything about the day was enjoyable. Two of the nastier aspect of football in the era were very apparent during the afternoon, with Gary Bennett the subject of abhorrent abuse from sections of the home terraces at the very same time the local constabulary were starting to wade into an away end that in the main had appeared very good-natured.
An increasingly testy Millmoor atmosphere was beginning to threaten the jolly up but Sunderland were determined to assert their dominance. Rather than easing off they got stuck in further after the break, backed by some defiant chanting from the travelling hordes. Paul Lemon was unlucky to see an attempted header back to the padded bottoms wearing Iain Hesford slip into the net, but that own goal aside the Lads were at full speed.
Clive Mendonca struggled to make an impact for the home team, and after the game Rotherham were eventually relegated via the old Play-Offs format. By that point, the Black Cats were enjoying their holidays. Gabbiadini grabbed a second after his pace terrified the hosts and Keith Bertschin put the icing on the cake after a lovely move and finish. The striker had come on after Richard Ord had become the first ever Sunderland substitute to himself be subbed off, following a nasty collision as he defended a cross.
Full-time saw the players greet their jubilant fans, many of whom had turned up in fancy dress and had filled their enclosures to bursting point. Those stands were brimming, and several supporters scaled fences, pillars and floodlights to try and not only gain a better view, but some much-needed space too, before staying long after the parade to continue their salutations. That holiday by the way started the following Monday, with the squad jetting off to Majorca. Smith had been impressed by the professionalism seen during the run in, and while he wanted his players to enjoy what he felt was a well-deserved break he did invite them to approach him informally while on the continent should they wish to discuss their futures.
Bertschin, despite his goal, had already decided that he would reject the new deal that was on the table as he was keen to go to a club where he could possibly get more games – although he did later return to Sunderland as part of Steve Bruce’s coaching team. Hesford, meanwhile, was considering a new contract offer alongside Doyle, Gates, Reuben Agboola, John Moore and Frank Gray, the former having recently been on a week-to-week deal.
With trips abroad and contracts being dished out, the return to Division Two had seemingly had an impact on the finances as well as the support base, and things were certainly looking up ahead of the summer.
Saturday 07 May 1988
Barclays League Division Three
Rotherham United 1 (Lemon o.g. 51’)
Sunderland 4 (Gabbiadini 3’, 74’, MacPhail 33’, Bertschin 89’)
Sunderland: Hesford; Kay, Bennett, MacPhail, Gray; Lemon (Ord 71’, Bertschin 81’), Doyle, Pascoe, Armstrong; Gates, Gabbiadini.
Millmoor, attendance 9,374
Watch all of the highlights from a big day at Millmoor here!