There was a blast from the recent past present on the bench for Brighton & Hove Albion as they visited Wearside on this day in 1988; a man who’d made a brief and unwitting cameo during a famous Sunderland cup run three years earlier.
Then with Chelsea, Dale Jasper had been involved in our League Cup semi-final with the Blues and was responsible for conceding two penalties at Roker Park as the Lads took control of the tie.
At that point, we were an established top-flight outfit with one eye on a trip to Wembley, and yet we were about to enter one of the most dismal periods in our entire history.
Having reached the national stadium, the final against Norwich City proved to be a damp squib and was followed by a slide down the leagues, with two relegations in three hugely dispiriting campaigns.
The good news, however, was that under manager Denis Smith, we were starting to turn things around and after victories over Doncaster Rovers and Bury in our two previous outings, we were looking to solidify our place at the top of Division Three.
The Lads had already been out in front for several months, but Albion were among the chasing pack and seemed to be in no mood to roll over.
Gary Owers broke a bone in his foot during a physical encounter, whilst Reuben Agboola also had to come off after suffering a dead leg, with the subsequent changes forcing Smith to shift the emerging Marco Gabbiadini into a somewhat unfamiliar midfield role.
It was important that his charges struck a balance between being up for the fight but playing well, and their determination to do just that shone through.
The only goal of the game was a somewhat scruffy effort but after dominating the first half, Sunderland were put onto the back foot as the game went on, and we did well to hold on to our slender advantage.
The winner originated from a training ground free-kick routine that initially went awry but eventually proved successful.
Three players huddled around the dead ball, and when Gordon Armstrong’s initial attempt was twice deflected, Steve Doyle worked it back into the box.
Paul Lemon, who had established himself on the wing despite playing as a striker in his younger days, seized the opportunity and swept in a snapshot off the post with impressive technique.
The performance pleased Smith no end, as he told the press afterward that he gained more pleasure from this showing than in the recent routs of Southend United and Rotherham United, during which we scored seven goals apiece.
The Seagulls had already demonstrated their capabilities earlier in the season at the Goldstone Ground, becoming one of only three sides to beat Sunderland in the league so far. The boss continued his post-match summary by expressing his opinion that alongside Notts County, the visitors were the best team the Lads had faced during the campaign.
His assertion was backed up by Albion’s form ahead of the Wearside fixture, with the visitors having lost only once in their previous twenty-one outings.
Overcoming such a strong opponent was a major boost, as was the news that on the same afternoon, Notts County had also lost, putting Sunderland four points clear with a game in hand.
As if this wasn’t impressive enough, we also had the second-best goal difference in the entire Football League, behind Liverpool.
Jasper, meanwhile, remained on the bench during the action, joining the seventh-highest gate in the country that weekend, despite this being a third-tier clash.
He remained a vital part of the squad as Brighton & Hove eventually finished as runners-up come May, and he next crossed paths with the Lads once he’d moved to Crewe Alexandra, featuring in a pre-season friendly ahead of 1989/1990, a campaign that would also end in promotion as Smith’s Roker renaissance continued.
Saturday 16 January 1988
Barclays League Division Three
Sunderland 1 (Lemon 32’)
Brighton & Hove Albion 0
Sunderland: Hesford, Kay, Bennett; MacPhail, Agboola (Bertschin 57’), Lemon; Owers (Gray 57’), Doyle, Armstrong; Gates, Gabbiadini