Remember The First Time?

Michael Conroy gives us an interesting statistical comparison between this season and the last time we were in the third tier, back in 1987…

In the summer of 1987 Sunderland were in dire straits, debts were mounting on a daily basis and the club had just been relegated to the third tier for the first time in their history. During the previous season Middlesbrough had shown that Midland Bank, who were also Sunderland’s bankers, were not reluctant to place a struggling club into receivership. Many of the ageing players with whom we had been relegated had been released or sold on and we didn’t have a manager. You would think we would learn from previous mistakes. However, we appointed a lesser known name as manager in Denis Smith based on his knowledge of managing at a lower level than we were previously used to. During that summer we also made some astute signings in John Kay, John McPhail, Colin Pascoe and some young lad called Marco. We all know how that season ended and the G-Force announced its arrival with 40 goals between them over the course of the season. We were champions before the final game at Rotherham and it was all rather easy. Or was it?

A narrow win against Brentford at Griffin Park opened the season and all seemed well, especially when that was followed up with a further six game unbeaten run albeit most of the matches in that run were draws. Put that side by side with this season’s opening seven games in League One and the comparison is a fair one as it took until our eighth game in both seasons to record our first defeat. In 2018 that was a 2-1 defeat to Burton and in 1987 it was a 3-1 defeat at Brighton. However, looking across those early fixtures we chalked up one more win this season than we did in 1987. Given the decimation of the squad and the despondency of the fans in the more recent period, it may surprise many to see that were able to hit the ground running, or at least jogging lightly, in League One. If we were to continue to match the form of that team from 1987 then surely we would be going up as champions again in 2019.

In those early games this season we were decried for early goals and missed opportunities and again, comparing it with 1987, there are parallels. In those opening seven games this season we scored 12 goals and conceded 6; in 1987 it was 11 for and 5 against. Everything appears to be going according to plan and perhaps our early panic about not being ready for the division or lacking the necessary guile for League One were a little misplaced. We did of course lose to Burton but since then have been unbeaten in the league. What that equates to is a run of 11 games unbeaten in the league since Burton Albion. In total, 19 games played with 11 wins, 7 draws and one defeat. Putting aside the comparison with 1987 for a second the last time we won 11 games in the league was 6 years ago under Martin O’Neill so we are definitely getting better value for money in League One.

However, how does that compare with the same period of games in 1987 and what does that mean for our prospects? Well, in 1987 after defeat to Brighton we stuttered further and the combination of draws prior to the Brighton game and a defeat straight after at Chester City left us languishing in twelfth, which is our lowest ever league position after this point something happened which has not, as yet happened this season. Something caught alight at Sunderland and some real momentum started to build. The Lads went on a run of eight wins in a row which rocketed them to the top of the league, granted there were a few narrow victories in that run but there was also a standout performance against Southend Utd when Eric Gates scored 4 in a 7-0 rout. By Boxing Day Sunderland were two points clear and then promptly beat Chester to cement their position. From that point on barring a minor blip in the final third of the season which dropped them briefly to second place, first place was destined for Wearside.

All of this is important to note because as it currently stands there have been a few occasions this season when we have looked excellent with the ball at our feet but we haven’t quite put teams to the sword yet and in comparison to the class of 88/89 we are far from stamping our dominance on the league. There are some real positives in so far as we are consistently lying between fourth and second place in the league which keeps us within touching distance of the top spot, but even in our big victories there have been questions to ask. When we were cruising against Scunthorpe at home, we did not then go on to romp home with the huge win that we probably should have. Against Southend you could possibly say that the result flattered us a little and against Rochdale we failed to keep a clean sheet when it was there for the taking.

Compare the feeling at the Stadium of Light to the record-breaking Championship season when our forward line obliterated teams. In those halcyon days we all turned up expecting a comfortable win regardless of opponent and generally we were not disappointed. The results and performances against Oxford, Fleetwood and Wycombe have left us with doubts about our ability to steamroll our way through the division this season. Sitting comfortably against Barnsley this nervousness seeped through the terraces as soon as Barnsley pulled a goal back and the frustrations of fans may well have had something of an impact on the jittery performance that remained until Luke O’Nien made certain of the win.

Football has changed since those days, of that there is little doubt, but we are crying out for a G-Force up front that gives us the teeth we need to tear the division up and some would argue that we lack charisma and composure at the back which was provided by Bennett and McPhail. This may be a harsh judgement given we have been very hard to beat all season but ultimately if we are to push on then it is time for us to find that spark which turns wins into domineering marauds through shell-shocked opposition with a strike force that has defenders quaking as they charge towards them. That is not to say it will not come. We must also remember that we have struggled with injuries all season and our big signing has hardly played at all. If Wyke and Watmore can play to their highly regarded ability there is an opportunity for them to combine with players who are already showing class in the division. Once we gel, I have faith we can dominate, but at the moment I am taking nothing for granted.