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Paul Bracewell of Sunderland

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On This Day (22nd January 1991): Sunderland’s final appearance in a long-forgotten competition

It was a short lived competition and thankfully on this day back in 1991, Sunderland participated for the final time.

To me this will always be the Zenith Data Systems Cup, to others it may be lodged as a glimpse of a memory as the Simod Cup, but the official name of the competition was the the Full Members Cup.

At this point I may have lost everyone under the age of 35 and anyone older may have no memories due to the fact it was a pretty crap competition or they frequented Ku Club on too many occasions back in the day.

It entered the realm of English football in 1985 without sponsorship, so was plainly titled as the Full Members Cup, and was created as a consequence of English clubs being banned from European competition following the Heysel disaster.

The ‘full members’ part came because in the original Football League structure, only teams from the top two tiers held full voting rights, and because the invite to take part in the competition only stretched across the top two divisions, the competition was named accordingly and with much imagination spent.

The bottom two divisions were given their own competition which was named originally as the Associate Members Cup and is still competed for today as the EFL Trophy of course.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy - Final 2021 - Wembley Stadium
So this was the Associate Members Cup...
Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

It was the sixth year of the competition’s lifespan in 1990-91 and it was already on its way out with dwindling attendances and the fact that English clubs (except Liverpool) were already competing in Europe again from the beginning of that season. To highlight the demise, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Aston Villa had all opted out of the competition.

Following our strange promotion to the top flight following defeat at Wembley in the play-off final, we were about where we expected ourselves to be at this point during the 1990-91 season - fighting for survival at the bottom.

Denis Smith had performed miracles to pick the club up from the end of the McMenemy-era that found the club in the third tier for the first time in our history, to returning to the First Division in just three seasons.

It’s even more impressive when you consider how Smith was hardly backed in the transfer market throughout this whole time due to the financial restraints on the club, which resulted in all of this happening with more or less the same group of players.

The Saturday previous to this fixture saw the Lads gain three vital points at Roker Park against Bobby Campbell’s Chelsea courtesy of a rare Colin Pascoe header, that lifted Smith’s side up to 17th in the table.

The First Division was made up of 20 teams during the season in question, but the following season would be 22, which meant four sides being promoted, and more importantly two going down, which seemingly gave us a fraction more hope that we might survive.

In mid-December, we had beaten Neil Warnock’s Notts County in the second round, which then took us strangely through to the quarter-final - at this point the format of the competition was lost on me and part of me doesn’t want to waste moments of my life working it out.

In the days before squad rotation and the mere thought of resting players was a mere concept that would come a number of years down the line, both Smith and Howard Kendall sent out virtually full strength sides.

It seems strange looking at today's game that the likes of Marco Gabbiadini, Paul Bracewell, Kevin Ball, Gary Bennett etc, would all be sent out to play a fixture in a cup competition nobody really cared about when we were fighting for our status as a First Division club.

Tony Cottee scores his fourth of the evening...

The fans had made their feelings perfectly clear by the fact that only 4,609 were in attendance at Goodison for the tie - which at this point was Everton’s second lowest gate in their history for a competitive competition.

Despite Sunderland dominating in the first half, we went into the break a goal down due to Tony Norman pulling off a breathtaking save that resulted in the ball squirming out of his hands against the frozen pitch which allowed Tony Cottee to tap home.

Neville Southall was in inspired form at the other end however and the visitors had to wait until just past the hour mark when Ball headed home from a Pascoe corner, but just over five minutes later, Cottee had scored once again to retake the lead for the home side.

Another few moments later, Cottee completed his hat-trick to put the game beyond doubt and with a few minutes remaining scored his fourth of the evening to take Everton through - where they would eventually end as losing finalists at Wembley to Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace.

Tuesday 22nd January, 1991

Zenith Data Systems Cup


Goodison Park

Everton 4-1 Sunderland

[Cottee 27’, 72’, 76’, 87’ - Ball 65’]

Sunderland: Norman, Owers, Bennett, Ball, Hardyman, Pascoe, Bracewell, Owers, Armstrong (Cornforth), Davenport (Rush), Gabbiadini

Everton: Southall, McDonald, Keown, Ratcliffe, Ebbrell, Nevin, McCall, Sheedy (Milligan), Beagrie, Sharp (Atteveld), Cottee

Attendance: 4,609


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