After an eventful five years, during which Sunderland had dropped into the third tier under Lawrie McMenemy – and then all the way back up again under Denis Smith – optimism was a welcome returning guest at Roker Park.
Of course, we knew a season in the top flight would probably be a struggle, but we were back competing with the best – and so far, we were going toe-to-toe.
We’d opened the campaign away at Norwich, and while we’d gone down 3-2, we’d given a good account of ourselves. Marco had scored a brilliant goal and his new strike partner Peter Davenport had got off the mark, too.
A home draw against a Spurs team featuring Bobby Robson’s Italia 90 heroes Gazza and Gary Lineker, in front of a packed Roker crowd, showed we could certainly compete – and that was followed by a 2-1 win over Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United; Gary Bennett turning into prime Maradona to net a late winner.
With nerves settled and confidence peaked, we headed to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea in our fourth fixture of the season – although we had to do without the influential Paul Bracewell.
One of the few players in our squad with any top-flight experience, Brace was a Rolls Royce of a midfielder, and his presence was pivotal, on and off the field.
However, a shin injury was set to rule the ex-England midfielder out 33 years ago today – and 19-year-old Brian Atkinson was lined up to take his place.
Bracewell is important to us because he makes us tick, but the other lads have to learn to survive without him.
He has trained again and wants to play, but I know him and it’s up to me to make the decision.
The lad [Atkinson] is a natural footballer. He has been demanding to be in the side with the sory of performances he has produced.
What he has to do now is learn his trade, and he can only do that by playing more games at the top level.
Atkinson did start for Sunderland, with Denis Smith – as usual – getting his own way and Bracewell sitting this one out.
And, it was an entertaining game, with Sunderland, in parts, once again showcasing some attacking, attractive football – as well as some defensive frailties.
Chelsea took an early lead, with Kerry Dixon sweeping home from 12 yards from a David Lee cross, and in truth, the home side could have been three up, with Tony Norman saving well from Andy Townsend and Graeme Le Saux.
After a poor 30 minutes, Sunderland got back into the game. A Sunderland corner was taken by Kieron Brady, who played it short to Owers, who returned the ball to Brady.
Kieron swung it in and Gabbiadini sprang into life, spectacularly volleying home with his left foot to equalise.
Dennis Wise, in those days a diminutive right winger, was pulling the strings after having arrived from Wimbledon in the summer, and it was he who played in Kevin Wilson just before halftime to slot home at the second attempt, which went in off the post. 2-1, and there was still time in the first half for Wise to hit the woodwork with a fierce free kick.
While Chelsea looked incredibly threatening, so too did Sunderland – and Brady, an early sub for the injured Paul Hardyman, was at his magical, impish best.
He turned in an excellent performance – albeit up against Gareth Hall – and ten minutes after half time it was the Scottish-Irishman who got the equaliser.
Played in by Davenport, after a long pass from Bennett, Brady sold Dave Beasant the most beautiful dummy, before calmly slotting the ball home past two Chelsea defenders on the goal line.
Both sides could have got a goal to put them in front, however, on 73, Chelsea were controversially given a chance from the spot. Gary Bennett challenged Wilson near the side of the box and seemed to win the ball fairly in the opinion of everyone in the ground bar referee Michael James, who pointed to the spot.
The protestations were, as always, in vain – and Wise stepped up to dispatch the winner.
I don’t think Gary even touched him, and anyway they weren’t in the penalty area.
Marco had these words post-game:
I was very pleased with the goal but at the end of the day it counted for nothing. That’s all I’m prepared to say.