Sunderland 1 Crystal Palace 0 – May 2, 1987
Gordon Armstrong gave Sunderland temporary respite in their battle to beat the Second Division drop under caretaker Bob Stokoe.
But victory over Crystal Palace was to be the last good news for the Rokermen as they slumped into third-bottom spot on the last day of the season, blowing a 2-0 lead against Barnsley, before infamously crashing into the Third Division for the first time, losing to Gillingham in the inaugural end-of-season play-offs.
It was a vital first home win in five matches, Stokoe’s first at Roker Park since returning to the hot seat following the sacking of Lawrie McMenemy.
Palace put up a poor show, though they almost ensured a nightmare finish for Sunderland, going very close to a last-minute equaliser.
The hosts had the chance of a sixth-minute opener.
Left-back Alan Kennedy threaded a pass through the middle for Keith Bertschin, despite a hint of offside, but he delayed his shot, allowing Gavin Nebbeling to make a crucial tackle from behind, with Sunderland appealing in vain for a penalty.
The Rokermen, though, were back to grab a 12th-minute lead with what proved to be the only goal.
Steve Doyle, playing at right-back, burst down the flank and, while ex-Palace striker Dave Swindlehurst and Keith Bertschin were calling for a high ball into the box, the midfielder’s low cross was met by Gordon Armstrong.
He was under pressure from Kevin Taylor, but his determined effort kept the ball in his possession and his low drive took a deflection off Taylor to leave keeper George Wood flat-footed as the ball rolled agonisingly over the line.
Sunderland continually got themselves bogged down by offside decisions, but they almost increased their lead on 35 minutes.
Armstrong linked up with Swindlehurst and Kennedy down the left, with the ball eventually being played inside to Eric Gates, who turned quickly and attempted to chip Wood, who had strayed well off his line.
The former Scotland keeper backpedalled and was well beaten when the ball dipped on to the roof of the net, to Palace’s relief.
Jim Cannon sent a back pass just outside his own upright as Palace showed signs of panic, and the resulting corner saw Sunderland go close again.
Swindlehurst had a stroke of luck in gaining possession to cross to the far post, where Bertschin nodded against the post, sustaining an arm injury in the process.
Sunderland were denied a blatant penalty two minutes into the second half.
Mark Proctor floated a free-kick into the middle and Gary O’Reilly took the ball off the head of Gary Bennett and Swindlehurst with his hand, but, astonishingly, referee Trelford Mills waved play on.
Stokoe was incensed and led the protests from pitchside, but to no avail.
Sunderland, though, took control.
Bennett turned and fired wide, then Wood made a magnificent, fingertip save to keep out a fierce Gates drive.
In response, Mark Bright’s point-blank header, after Andy Gray tormented Doyle, was straight at Hesford and bounced out to Bennett, who cleared off the line.
Hesford then made a smart save to deny Ken O’Doherty, and he got lucky on 84 minutes as Bennett headed off the line when caught out of position for Gray’s centre.
Hesford, though, proved to be the hero, producing a tremendous save in the last minute to defy Taylor as Palace broke strongly.
A big win at the time, but it was to prove futile and Sunderland’s record of never playing outside the top two divisions was to end two weeks later.
Sunderland: Hesford, Doyle, Kennedy, Hetzke, Gray, Bennett, Armstrong, Swindlehurst, Bertschin, Proctor, Gates. Sub: Buchanan
Crystal Palace: Wood, Nebbeling, O’Doherty, Taylor, O’Reilly, Cannon, Irvine, Andy Gray, Bright, Wright, Finnigan (Barber 63)