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On This Day (22nd August 1987): Sunderland stages its first ever home game in Division Three

Thirty six years ago today, Roker Park made unwanted history by hosting a first ever league game in Division Three, and it was a frustrating start for the home side.

With Bob Murray now installed as chairman of Sunderland AFC, he helped the club to prepare themselves for the third tier of English football for the very first time.

Murray sought experience for the managerial position, which led him to appoint the duo of Denis Smith and Viv Busby.

Soccer - Barclay’s League Division Two - Tranmere Rovers v Sunderland Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

They knew the division well from their time at York City and ahead of the new season, they searched for bargains throughout the country.

The defence was strengthened with signings such as John MacPhail and John Kay, the former having been a stalwart in a Bristol City side who’d finished sixth the previous season.

However, the most significant purchase during the summer of 1987 was Marco Gabbiadini, who arrived at Roker Park for £80,000 and whose goals provided a real boost as we climbed towards the summit of the table.

However on this day, Gabbiadini had still yet to sign and we were only beginning our arduous journey back towards the big time.

Sunderland hosted its first game in the third tier when we came up against Bristol Rovers at Roker Park in front of 13,059 fans.

Marco Gabbiadini Photo by Tom Jenkins/Allsport/Getty Images

After winning our first game 1-0 away at Brentford, hopes were high that we could replicate this with a win against the lowly visitors, who were tipped for relegation during 1987/1988.

Among the ranks of the Rovers team was a young Nigel Martyn, who'd been signed from Cornish non-league football, and the future England international showed exactly why Rovers bagged £1 million for him when he was eventually sold.

Managed by Gerry Francis, Rovers were the better team throughout the first half and according to one newspaper article, the away side were ‘showing sterner stuff’ and had also ‘enjoyed the better of a scoreless first half’.

After a drab and dreary first forty five minutes, we piled on the pressure and created some decent opportunities. However, with Martyn in inspired form, it took until the seventy fourth minute until we finally made the breakthrough.

Martyn was finally beaten in the seventy fourth minute when Paul Lemon ran onto Keith Bertschin’s through pass to fire home past the Bristol goalkeeper.

A portrait of Dennis Smith the manager of Sunderland

After Lemon’s goal, we were in control and it appeared that we may even add a second before the end, with further chances being missed by Gary Owers and Eric Gates.

However, against the run of play, Rovers bagged themselves an unlikely equaliser.

Rovers’ persistance was rewarded with eight minutes to go.

Kenny Hibbitt took an inswinging free kick from the right and Gary Penrice dived to head home his fourth goal in three games.

The goal shocked the Sunderland players, fans and management with Smith admitting after the game that he didn’t anticipate Bristol getting back into it after we got our noses in front.

After we scored, I couldn’t see Rovers scoring - I expected them to cave in.

But they didn’t - and all credit to their players for that.

Ultimately, the draw would’ve been perceived as a disappointing result for Smith and his players but that being said, and with the impending arrival of Gabbiadini, we didn’t look back.

From October onwards, we would never be out of the automatic promotion places and eventually ended up nine points clear of runners-up Brighton.


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