With Steve Hetzke dropping out after the first game and needing a cartilage operation, the door was open for some of Lawrie McMenemy’s other defensive options during the early stages of the 1986-87 season.
Sunderland-born David Corner was given an extended during the opening weeks, whilst the visit of Barnsley in the first round of the Full Members Cup brought a debut for another local lad – and he certainly packed plenty into his competitive bow when it came on this day in 1986.
Nigel Saddington had joined SAFC from Doncaster Rovers as opposed to coming through the ranks of his hometown club, with the South Yorkshire outfit originally picking him up from the Wearside non-league scene.
Initially coming back to the area for personal reasons, McMenemy remembered being impressed by him whilst on scouting missions when in charge at Southampton and so offered Saddington a loan at the start of the year.
By April the centre back had shown enough in training and his appearances for the reserves to warrant a permanent deal at Roker, and with a small fee going to Belle Vue he continued working his way towards the fringes of the first team.
Once given a start he showed the stamina and composure of a seasoned pro. With the game ending 1-1 and going into extra time before being decided on penalties, Saddington earned the distinction of not only being the first Sunderland debutant to rack up 120 minutes on their maiden outing but also the first to take a penalty shoot-out spot kick. He stuck to his task well too, with McMenemy fulsome in his praise afterwards;
Saddington was very solid. His performance didn’t surprise me because I know what he is capable of. Some people may have been surprised that he was our number four penalty kicker…but I know which players are the best strikers of the ball in training.
The Full Members Cup, although for clubs in the top two divisions, was classed as a minor competition and that was reflected in the attendance, but McMenemy was also keen to compliment the crowd – aware no doubt that following his much-heralded arrival 14 months earlier he’d been unable to deliver consistency and would do well therefore to try and keep the supporters on side. Although the gate of less than 7,000 was a fairly significant drop compared to the numbers seen three days earlier when the Lads had narrowly beaten Hull City, it was still the third highest of the 27 fixtures played in England that night.
McMenemy acknowledged this when speaking to the press the following morning and thanked the fans for turning up – it had been a long night for everybody involved, and even one of the early leavers had to do an about-turn when it looked like there was to be more drama. So disgusted with himself was Alan Kennedy, another Sunderland-born member of the side, when he missed his spot kick that he immediately walked down the tunnel and into the changing room. The former Liverpool man had put away the decisive penalty in the 1984 European Cup final but found his latest attempt saved by Clive Baker, and as he stripped for the bath started mentally preparing an apology to his teammates.
Upon hearing various cheers and groans from outside though, he realised that he might be needed to go again. Kennedy returned to the pitch therefore wearing just a towel, and was thankful to see George Burley convert to eventually secure an 8-7 shoot-out victory.
Iain Hesford had been the difference, saving three efforts, and his future was also touched upon by McMenemy the next day with the manager confirming that an agreement had been reached with parent club Sheffield Wednesday to turn the goalkeeper’s loan into a full transfer.
During all the tension the stopper thought he’d saved another penalty until the referee ordered a retake, whilst in normal time he had been beaten by Stuart Gray, who pounced on a collective lapse in concentration seconds after Sunderland had taken the lead.
Ironically enough, the opener had come from Kennedy, who placed a well struck shot past Baker when a Paul Lemon free kick wasn’t cleared properly. He suspected afterwards that his success for Liverpool had cost him when he stepped up to take his penalty, with Baker remembering his previous televised attempts and ‘knowing’ which way to dive, and the former England international’s relief was clear to see once the Lads knew they were going to progress – he was now able to enjoy that bath much more than he’d anticipated, although one of his teammates wasn’t so lucky.
Dave Swindlehurst was brought off as a precaution after straining his hamstring but was able to play in the next match, yet the prognosis for Gary Bennett was not as positive. He played on until extra time despite being in immense pain from a shoulder injury picked up during the game and was quickly whisked away to hospital for an X-ray in the aftermath. It meant another defensive headache for McMenemy, and so it came as something of a surprise when Saddington was not involved at the weekend against Ipswich Town.
When Saddington did next feature in December it was also against Barnsley, but this time it was in the league. By that stage Sunderland had exited the Full Members Cup following defeat at Odsal Stadium to Bradford City, but they soon had much bigger things to worry about.
When the Tykes returned to Roker for the final scheduled game of the campaign McMenemy was long gone, scarpering in the dead of night having taken the squad backwards and leaving others to sort out the mess.
Only a victory over Barnsley would be enough to guarantee safety – but by then Sunderland’s penalty knack had deserted them, and within a few weeks they could no longer claim full membership to the league.
Tuesday 16 September 1986
Full Members Cup, 1st round
Sunderland 1 (Kennedy 65’)
Barnsley 1 (S. Gray 66’)
After extra time. Sunderland win 8-7 on penalties (F. Gray, Armstrong, Saddington, Gates, Lemon, Corner, Buchanan, Burley scored. Kennedy and Atkinson saved).