Sunderland were in fifteenth position in Division Two when they arrived at the Goldstone Ground on this day thirty seven years ago.
The Lads were coming off the back of an insipid performance and one-nil defeat at Elm Park the previous Saturday, and the travelling fans hadn’t seen an away victory since an unexpected four-two win at Plymouth on 18 October.
The 1986/1987 season saw the introduction of the playoffs, so many of us saw this as an extra chance to go up!
Fail to get into the automatic promotion spots and all we needed to do was win the playoffs. It seemed so simple at the start of this season, so what could go wrong?
Our team at the Goldstone showed some surprising changes from the previous week.
Out went Mark Proctor and Dave Swindlehurst, with top scorer Dave Buchanan dropped to the bench, and in came Ruben Agboola for his first game since early September, and Terry Curran for his sixth game of the league campaign.
Brighton weren’t having the best of times themselves and the game was played out against the sound of fan protests aimed at chairman Bryan Bedson.
Despite both teams’ form and difficulties, the first half was a thrilling, end-to-end contest with Brighton preferring a ‘route one’ approach and Sunderland trying to play their way into the game.
Agboola and Gary Bennett were prominent in resisting the first half bombardment, whilst youngster Gordon Armstrong and veteran Frank Gray provided some enterprising midfield play with the assistance of the hardworking Steve Doyle.
On twelve minutes, Doyle won the ball in midfield and found Armstrong out wide. The youngster then squared a cross to Eric Gates who sidefooted the ball home from eight yards.
The goal seemed to settle us and a few minutes later, Frankie Gray hit the bar with an excellent volley from an Armstrong corner.
Half time arrived with Sunderland deservedly in front but Brighton still competing, and the second half was only four minutes old when Gates found Curran with a defence-splitting pass, and the curly-haired maverick scored the only goal of his Sunderland career as he curled a lovely shot around goalkeeper John Keeley to put us 2-0 up.
The result was never in doubt after this, with Doyle and Armstrong controlling midfield, and Gray, Curran and Gates all going close as Sunderland dominated.
On seventy eight minutes, a George Burley free kick found Bennett, who unleashed an unstoppable volley that almost burst the Seagulls’ net. It was a cracking goal and delightfully celebrated by the fans’ favourite.
The game finished 3-0 to Sunderland and it was a well-deserved victory. Lawrie McMenemy was in fine fettle during the post-match interviews, declaring that his team were ‘still aiming for the playoffs’, and he wasn’t wrong.
We did indeed make the playoffs, albeit at the wrong end of the table, by which time McMenemy was no longer at the helm having done a disappearing act, infamously heading south with his family following another abject defeat against Sheffield United at Roker Park.
Having spent sixty eight years in the top flight up until 1958, the following thirty years saw five relegations and a total of thirteen years spent in the second division, and the end of the 1986/1987 season would see us relegated to the third tier for the first time in our history.
Our top scorers that season were Proctor and Buchanan with eight goals each, highlighting one of our difficulties.
Meanwhile, on the same day as this game, a rapid young forward was notching a stylish assist and goal for York City.
Marco Gabbiadini’s time at Sunderland was too far away, but on this day the plaudits went to Gates, Curran, Bennett, and man of the match Gordon Armstrong.
7 February 1987
Goldstone Ground, Brighton
Sunderland 3 (Gates 12’, Curran 49’, Bennett 78’)
Brighton: Keeley, O’Reagan, Hutchings; Wilson, Gatting, Young; Penney, Gatting, Tiltman; Connor, Hughes
Sunderland: Hesford, Burley, Gray; Hetzke, Bennett, Agboola; Curran, Doyle, Armstrong; Lemon, Gates