When Sunderland Were Last in England’s Third Tier

Sport, Football, pic: 2nd May 1988, Sunderland 3 v Northampton Town 1, Sunderland captain Gary Bennett with the Division 3 Championship trophy (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – Charles Dickens. The opening lines of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ sums up Sunderland’s last encounter with England’s third tier as well as anything else.

When Sunderland Were Last in England’s Third Tier

Sunderland were relegated to League One at the end of last season. For a club the size of Sunderland, this could be almost unthinkable. However, in this day and age where the game can be cruel and many big clubs have suffered, anything can happen.

Before this season, the Black Cats, during their long and at times illustrious lifespan, had been residents in England’s third tier once before, albeit for only one season. Here is how it played out for the Wearside club.

Their Last Third-Tier Campaign

When the unthinkable happened back in 1987 after the disastrous Lawrie McMenemy era, Sunderland were at their lowest. Their famous but tired home, Roker Park, was in need of a facelift, they needed a new manager and a new direction. Many of the squad responsible for the demotion needed replacing if possible. However, cash was thin on the ground. Sunderland needed a miracle worker to get them out of the then Division Three at the first attempt. If they couldn’t, the unthinkable could become a whole lot worse.

Denis Smith

Denis Smith, the former Stoke City defender who had worked wonders at York, was the man appointed. His remit was simple; promotion. He brought with him his trusted coach and assistant Viv Busby. The pair set to work on a squad short of confidence, and bringing in new faces to improve the squad.

Smith was so confident in his abilities, he pledged to pay £10,000 towards York City’s compensation should he fail to gain promotion at the first attempt. He could boast previous promotion experience having guided unfancied York City to glory with 101 points. He also had an extensive contact list from the lower leagues to the high following a successful playing career with Stoke City.


Smith brought in central defender John McPhail. Highly experienced McPhail knew the lower leagues well and had been successful in them too. He also knew Denis Smith having previously played under him. McPhail would prove to be an excellent signing and during his first season, he became one of the club’s top scorers.

Another player to be brought in was John Kay. The right-back was brought in from Wimbledon and would become a cult hero. His no-nonsense, tough tackling style made him an instant favourite and would be ever-present during this season alongside McPhail.

Good Start and Reality Check

Sunderland began the season well, winning away at Brentford on the opening day. This was followed by a draw and a further two victories. All was looking good until a dip in form, taking just three points from five games, saw the Black Cats slip to 12th in the table. It was the lowest the club had ever been. Smith needed something new and he found it in a young striker from York City.

The G-Force

Marco Gabbiadini signed for £80,000 and is, alongside Kevin Phillips, arguably the best piece of business the club has ever done. Gabbiadini’s debut was a disappointing home defeat to Chester City but the youngster and the team soon hit form. Sunderland won six in a row and Gabbiadini was forming an almost unstoppable partnership with Eric Gates. The G-Force was born and was causing havoc to opposition defences. They ended the season with 40 league goals between them.

After a defeat at the hands of Notts County at the end of October, the Black Cats went on a 17-game unbeaten run. The occasional defeat could not stop the momentum and the club were looking like they could bounce back at the first attempt.

Promotion Party at Port Vale

With three games remaining, Sunderland travelled to Port Vale. A victory would guarantee promotion back to England’s second tier at the first attempt, leaving the darkest of days behind them. Sunderland, however, came up against a Port Vale keeper having the game of his life.

Time after time, Mark Grew denied the visitors with a string of excellent saves. Eventually, in the second half, Eric Gates scored from close range to send the away fans wild. Sunderland were promoted and the celebrations could begin.

The Championship

Northampton at home saw Sunderland capture the title. A 3-1 victory ensured that the club would go up as champions. A crowd of almost 30,000, the North East’s biggest crowd of the season, saw their side lift the title during a lap of honour. This included manager Denis Smith being lifted high onto his players’ shoulders.

Fans still look back on the 1987/88 season with fondness. Some describe it as their favourite season. All fans will be hoping that this season will end in a similar way, with Sunderland back in the second tier of English football at the first attempt. Then, in due course, back in the Premier League where they belong.

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