It is easy perhaps to see the manner of Sunderland’s 1989-90 promotion, confirmed by the administrators and not on the pitch, and write it off as somehow lucky – but that would be a little unfair on what was still a wonderfully talented squad.
Supporters that witnessed it in person will still go misty-eyed at the thought of Denis Smith’s exciting blend of football, which was carried out by a team that had the perfect balance of organisation and flair. The side was packed with likable characters too, whilst the classic kits worn at the time, complete with iconic Vaux sponsorship, only add to the level of fondness still felt for the period.
Replica versions of both the blue and yellow change strips that were used go for big money now when put up for sale, with the designs being worn in several impressive away trips. Nobody in Division Two won more games on the road than the Lads that season but when they clicked Sunderland could be just as potent at Roker Park too – as was proven on this day when previously unbeaten Watford rolled into town.
The Hornets had made the play-offs during the campaign just gone and were expected to challenge at the top again, but they were made to look second best in every department by a home team who looked up for it from the start. Marco Gabbiadini came away with the match ball after blitzing his way to a hattrick but this was no one man show – the fan favourite certainly got the crowd going but Gary Bennett and the recently returned Paul Bracewell were just two of the others to receive praise in the aftermath.
Gordon Armstrong was another one to put in a good showing and his early goal cemented Sunderland’s early dominance. It came via a deep Colin Pascoe cross, and whilst Armstrong’s first effort came off the post he was quickly on hand to put away the rebound. If visiting boss Steve Harrison was left unimpressed with his defence’s sluggishness in that moment however, he would have perhaps conceded that there was little the back four could have done to quell a rampant Gabbiadini.
His first of the afternoon came via a smart move from the back that was instigated by Bennett and led to Pascoe deftly flicking the ball into Gabbiadini’s path just outside of the area. A deadly one touch finish from the former York City man followed, and he was soon in on goal again when he chased down a high ball and banged in an opportunist strike to make it 3-0. At this point Watford were getting battered, and in the final minutes of the half future Sunderland goalkeeper Tony Coton was desperately trying to limit the damage.
His opposite number Tim Cater, meanwhile, was having a rather more straightforward time of it during his first appearance of the season. Back in the starting XI due to Tony Norman breaking his arm, Carter looked assured when mopping things up but in reality, had little out of the ordinary to do. Sunderland’s speed of thought meant Watford were unable to go for broke, and there was always the threat of another pacey break to keep them on their toes.
Knowing about them and stopping them were two different things though. A Reuben Agboola punt with 20 minutes left to play wasn’t dealt with and within the blink of an eye Gabbiadini had raced through and confidently stroked the ball home. It was vintage Marco and it was well received by those on the terraces – Gary Porter in the opposition midfield perhaps being the only local inside the ground not impressed at seeing his hometown team on fire.
The atmosphere had reached fever pitch at points in the first half when the Lads were really pushing and once the points were secured the crowd went through the full repertoire of chants, serenading not only their hattrick hero but the rest of the side as well. This was indeed a popular Sunderland vintage and victory took them second in the embryonic table, proof if it were needed that they were genuine contenders on merit.
Saturday 9 September 1989
Barclays League Division Two
Sunderland 4 (Armstrong 6’, Gabbiadini 39’, 44’, 70’)
Sunderland: Carter; Agboola, MacPhail, Bennett, Hardyman; Pascoe (Cullen 81’), Bracewell, Owers, Armstrong; Gates, Gabbiadini. Unused: Hauser
Roker Park, attendance 15,042