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In many ways, Denis Smith was a victim of his own success at Sunderland.
Charging out of Division Three at the first attempt after taking charge in the summer of 1987 following his move from York City was always the initial target - but to take two years to reach the top flight with virtually the same squad was unexpected.
A conveyor belt of young players were required to step up from the ranks and when the only recruitment ahead of the challenge of the First Division was the additions of Kevin Ball and Peter Davenport - to replace the outgoing John MacPhail and Eric Gates - those young players would be needed more than ever.
Due to the strange circumstances of the promotion, that involved defeat at Wembley and Swindon Town being found guilty of “irregular” financial shenanigans, we were everyone’s favourite to go straight back down - despite the fact only two were relegated to increase the number of teams in the top flight.
But, an unlucky defeat at Norwich City on the opening day was followed by a solid goalless draw against a Tottenham Hotspur side containing World Cup 90’ stars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne and a victory against Manchester United, which raised optimism that it might not be such a monumental struggle.
However, only two more victories would be recorded in the next 17 league games for Smith’s side in what remained of 1990, meaning only Sheffield United sat below the Lads as 1991 began.
To kick-off the new year, Chris Nicholl’s Southampton were the visitors to Roker Park in the New Year’s Day fixture, who were sitting comfortably in mid-table, seven points above their opponents.
In recent weeks, Sunderland’s task had been made more difficult by injuries to key strikers Peter Davenport and Marco Gabbiadini, which resulted in youngsters Warren Hawke and David Rush getting the nod to face Southampton.
After the previous game that ended in a 3-2 defeat at Queens Park Rangers, which was typical of the way we played that season, Smith talked of a more pragmatic moving forward, an approach that was to begin with the visit of the Saints.
This made the game itself a bit of a drab affair where the only bright spots were provided by the mazy runs of Colin Pascoe, who caused the away side all sorts of problems all afternoon. One of these runs just after half-time would provide the moment of the game when he was brought in the area and the referee had pointed to the spot.
Despite Paul Hardyman being on the pitch, who had taken on the duties from John MacPhail in previous years, Kevin Ball had scored our last penalty against QPR in the previous after Paul Bracewell had missed on in the same fixture.
And with the first shot on target of the entire game, Ball made sure from the spot to open the scoring and ultimately take all three points that lifted the Lads out of the relegation zone - as Ian Murtagh reported in the Evening Chronicle:
The fruitless entertainers of 1990 gave way to a far more efficient yet less colourful Sunderland yesterday but it is this more cautious approach which bodes better for the months ahead.
Morale-shattering defeats at Crystal Palace and QPR forced an untypical U-turn from the usually stubborn Smith as Roker picked up their first win - and first clean sheet in six weeks against an unambitious Southampton.
The win might have been in Southampton’s favour in the second half but the Roker defence had to survive a frantic last few minutes as the visitors poured forward and only a goal-line clearance from Paul Hardyman and some careless finishing by Gosforth-born Alan Shearer preserved that precious advantage.
Tuesday 1st January, 1991
Sunderland 1-0 Southampton
[Ball (pen) 48’]
Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Bennett, Ball, Hardyman, Pascoe, Bracewell, Owers, Armstrong, Hawke, Rush Substitutes not used: Cornforth, Williams
Southampton: Flowers, Cherednik, Ruddock, Moore, Adams, Cockerill, Horne, McLoughlin, Le Tissier, Wallace, Shearer Substitutes not used: Benali, Banger