Denis Smith’s Sunderland reign had got off to the best possible starts – a 1-0 win away at Brentford – and on this day 36 years ago he was managing his first game in the home dugout at Roker Park.
After inheriting a club in the doldrums, Smith had managed to generate some optimism among players and fans alike, however, it was about to get real as his Sunderland team took on neighbours Middlesbrough in a Littlewoods Cup encounter.
Boro had been through their own troubles in recent seasons. Indeed, they’d started the previous campaign locked out of Ayresome Park and playing at Hartlepool’s Victoria Ground (managing to play their first ‘home’ and ‘away’ games of the season at the same ground after they were drawn away at Hartlepool in the 86-87 Littlewoods Cup) but had rallied to earn promotion in second spot – passing Sunderland who were travelling in the opposite direction.
Smith wasn’t the only new face on show. Former Newcastle keeper Steve Hardwick had been recruited on loan as Smith desperately searched for a new goalie to replace the much-maligned Iain Hesford, while fellow new signings John Kay and John MacPhail – as well as youth team graduate Gary Owers – were all set for their Roker Park debuts.
Smith said before the game:
I have worked hard here to get the team spirit right, and I want it that was all season. The way to do that is to keep winning games.
The spirit here was not particularly high when I first came here but I got 100 per cent out of everyone at Brentford on Saturday, and I am a believer in everyone working together for each other.
Superior ability will only show itself if the hard work is done first.
In the lineup for Bruce Rioch’s Boro side was Tony Mowbray, who’d captained the club to promotion, while alongside him was Gary Pallister, who was attracting attention from higher up the pyramid and had enticed Alex Ferguson and his assistant Archie Knox to a Tuesday night out in Sunderland.
Smith had named an unchanged team for the game, including transfer-listed striker Eric Gates, while Middlesbrough’s lineup also featured Bernie Slaven, Stuart Ripley, Stephen Pears, Colin Cooper, Gary Parkinson, Paul Kerr, Stuart Ripley, and new signing Dean Glover, who’d joined the club from Aston Villa for £60,000 and had made his debut in the previous weekend’s draw at Millwall.
A crowd of 15,770 turned up for this Tuesday night fixture, which was the first of a two-legged round. Barring the previous season’s final league game versus Barnsley, and the playoff game against Gillingham, this was the second largest crowd for a home game since the end of October, illustrating just how deep the sense of disconnection and disillusionment was – and the enormity of the task facing Smith.
The game got off to a fast start, with Sunderland on the attack. Gates easily turned Pallister – which wouldn’t have impressed the watching Fergie – and crossed into the box. Mowbray inexplicably missed the cross, which fell to Keith Bertschin, who couldn’t guide it home.
Shortly after, Boro were down to ten men. Sunderland skipper Gary Bennett set off on one of his trademark, slaloming runs up the field, played the ball out to the right and continued his run up the field – only to be flattened off the ball by Glover.
Few in the crowd saw the incident, but referee Mike Peck did – and after just 12 minutes the away team were a man down.
It was a fiery affair. Armstrong was booked for a foul on Kerr, and from the resultant freekick Parkinson shot towards goal, and Hardwick managed to seize control ahead of Mowbray.
With 22 minutes gone, Sunderland took the lead. The home team earned a corner after Pears tuned over a curled shot. Armstrong’s low corner from the right was flicked on by Lemon, and swept home by Gates.
Boro responded immediately, with Hardwick saving well from Slaven, and Archie Stephen’s overhead kick just going over.
Gates almost doubled the lead just before half time after good work from Lemon on the right, while Mowbray became the latest player to go into the book, for a foul on Gates.
Pallister didn’t reappear for the second half – no doubt to the disappointment of the scouting contingent – after picking up an injury in the first half from Armstong’s strong challenge.
Ten man Boro were almost level early in the second half. From a Bennett lapse in concentration, Stephens was in on goal, but Hardwick saved bravely. Bennett and his defensive partner MacPhail had good opportunities to extend the lead, both heading over when they really should have scored, but on the night it mattered little.
Sunderland had beaten a team in the league above them, and Denis Smith’s Roker regime had got off to a winning start.
Sunderland 1-0 Middlesbrough
Sunderland: Hardwick, Kay, Agboola, Bennett, MacPhail, Armstrong, Lemon, Proctor, Bertschin, Gates, Owers. Subs not used: Gray, Moore.
Middlesbrough: Pears, Glover, Cooper, Mowbray, Parkinson, Pallister (Kernaghan), Slaven, Stephens, Hamilton, Kerr, Ripley. Sub not used: Proudlock.