Sunderland’s Twelve Days of Christmas: (11) Port Vale

Another image from Mrs Logic's Flickr files
No prizes for guessing this was not our ground in those days: from Mrs Logic’s Flickr files

Pete Sixsmith nears the end of an entertaining series of recollections – or, in one or two cases, historical research – of matches played over the festive season. Atkinson, Davenport and Byrne are the names that counted in this game, the start of a run that finished with Sunderland’s last FA Cup Final …

See the full series here:

11. Jan 4 1992: Port Vale FA Cup 3rd Round (H) Won 3-0

Not an epic game in itself, but it was the start of a run that took us to Wembley and our third Cup Final under the Twin Towers. Unlike the other two, we lost it. That it was to a Liverpool team who personified all the arrogance one associates with big time Charlies made it doubly hard.

It was Malcolm Crosby’s second game in charge after the termination of Dennis Smith’s contract. We had been expected to mount a serious challenge to get back to the top division before it became the all new, all singing and dancing FA Premier League, wiping out 104 years of history at a stroke. Bob Murray had made it clear that we had to be there for the club to survive and that if the likes of Oldham Athletic and Wimbledon were members, Sunderland should be as well.

Smith knew that a quick return was essential, but there was no money available and he had to sell before he could buy. Off went Marco to Crystal Palace, and in came Anton Rogan and John Byrne, with Don Goodman joining later in 1991.

But results were poor and going into Christmas, we were half way and closer to a relegation spot than a promotion place. Smith had already agreed to the departure of his pal Viv Busby and Malcolm Crosby, another old pal from his York City days, was now first team coach. Successive defeats at Tranmere on Boxing Day and then Oxford United, two days later, saw the popular and likeable Smith get his cards and Crosby take over.

Jake's dream
Jake’s dream

His first game saw us beat Barnsley on New Year’s Day, with Armstrong and Goodman scoring, and then we went into our first game in that year’s FA Cup with a home tie against Port Vale, the other Potteries club, who were, at that time, the leading club in that benighted area as Stoke City languished in the Third Division.

The team that day was Norman; Kay, Bennett, Rogan, Hardyman; Armstrong, Bracewell, Atkinson, Owers; Byrne, Davenport, Subs were Sampson and Brady. Goodman, who had cost £900,000 from Third Division West Brom, was cup tied as he had come on as a late sub against Bradford City (where he had started out) in the First Round. I often wonder how we would have fared had he been available for the Cup games.

There were some real Sunderland heroes in that team. John Kay, the Red and White Tractor, was not the most gifted of players, but there have been few more wholehearted ones in my time as a Sunderland supporter. He was magnificent in the play-off victory at the not quite yet Sports Direct and he went down in Roker legend when he paddled the stretcher off the field after breaking his leg against Birmingham City. Suffice to say, he was Stephen Wilson’s great hero.

Gary Bennett is one of the most well respected players in the club’s history and played for us in three divisions, scoring some spectacular goals and making some brilliant tackles over his 11 years at Roker before settling into his role as BBC pundit. Sharper and more involved than Alan Shearer? Definitely so!!!

Brian Atkinson and Gordon Armstrong were local lads who came up through the youth team and who both made a sterling contribution to the club over a number of years. Atkinson won Under 21 Honours, while Armstrong will go down in SAFC history for that magnificent header against Chelsea in the replay at Roker, when he headed in Atkinson’s corner to win the game.

And then there was Gary Owers. Another local lad who came up through the juniors, he will forever live in my memory for a sensational performance at SJP in that wonderful 2-0 win in 1990. He tackled everything that night, hurling himself at the ball as Newcastle tried to break us down. It was one of the most committed performances I have seen and I really thought that he would go on to become a top class player.

The game was a bit of a stroll for us, with Atkinson and Davenport putting us two up at half time and then John Byrne wrapping it up in the second half as Port Vale looked exactly what they were – a side destined for relegation.

Byrne was an interesting character and, on his day, a marvellous player. He had been with Smith at York, had moved on to QPR and then Le Havre in France, before pitching up at Brighton. He played and scored for Albion in a 4-2 defeat at Roker Park in October, a game remarkable for Brighton wearing blue and white striped shirts (normal) and blue and white striped shorts (not normal) and having NOBO as their shirt sponsors.

Smith brought him to Sunderland later that month and he scored some very good goals and seemed to link up well with Goodman when he arrived. The pair of them were brilliant at The Baseball Ground in January, where we beat promotion chasing Derby 2-1 and should have walked it.

The cup run went on; Oxford were seen off 3-2 on a Tuesday night, West Ham in a replay with Byrne scoring in both. Then came the spectacular win over the Pensioners, Dennis Wise and all, before we beat a feeble Norwich 1-0 at Hillsbrough. That the final was such a desperate anti-climax still rankles with me.

Vale are having a good season in Division One and there is every chance that they could be playing us next season. It gives us a chance to visit the Bull’s Head, brewery tap for the excellent Titanic Brewery. Relegation does have some compensations.

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