Sunderland legend John McPhail on how the current crop compare to 1987/88 and blanking cup ignominy from his memory
Former Black Cats defender John MacPhail is backing 'massive club' Sunderland for promotion - and to avoid the FA Cup second round misery he experienced with them over three decades ago.
Jack Ross’s side head to Walsall tomorrow for the second successive week to face the Saddlers for a place back among the big boys in the next round of the ultimate domestic knock-out competition.
And while MacPhail was part of the only Sunderland side in modern history to fail to make round three – when they lost 2-1 at Scunthorpe in December 1987 while in the old Third Division – he has no fears of a repeat at the Bescot Stadium.
But that’s partly down to the fact that he has erased the memory of the day Sunderland made a show of themselves at the Old Showground.
Instead, MacPhail focuses on the echoes of that 1987-88 Black Cats team’s promotion-winning qualities he sees in Ross’s side.
And in a fit-again Duncan Watmore, MacPhail believes Ross has some of the attacking X-factor which Eric Gates and Marco Gabbiadini supplied for the third-tier champions of ’88.
“When I first signed for Sunderland when they went down [in 1987], they really had some players,” says MacPhail.
“Eric Gates, Gary Bennett and all these superstars – Frankie Gray and all that...fantastic players. It was just great times and a great team.
“But the team now is doing quite well. I think he [Ross] has got them all playing for one another and as well as the results being similar to ours, they’re in that league with the same type of players.
“Back then, we would let a goal in but we would know that Marco or Gatesy would score maybe one or two goals.
“I don’t know if they’ve quite had that in this Sunderland team so far at this moment in time but it’s very good that Duncan Watmore has come back hopefully with no repercussion of his old injuries.
“That’s a good player they’ve got there.”
In general, though, MacPhail insists consistency and hard graft – more so than flair – are the keys to Ross repeating Denis Smith’s trick of bouncing straight back from the third tier.
“Up to now they’ve been quite consistent, which is vital,” he adds. “Obviously, they’ve had a few draws when people thought that they might have won, but that’s football sometimes.
“Every time Sunderland play against a team at this level, above all they’ve got to work hard. That’s what it’s all about.
“They have to earn the right to play their football and make their extra quality count.”
And if Sunderland do that, MacPhail is convinced the huge away followings they can call on will also prove decisive – as they did in 1987-88.
“The fans have supported them very well again - they’ve been fantastic,” he said. “They’re like an extra player, especially away from home.
“There are like five or six thousand supporters travelling with them sometimes. In that league, that is huge – it just helps so much to have that level of vocal backing.
“When every club at that level plays Sunderland, they obviously love it, because they are a big club with massive support. But it has an effect on the pitch.”
And MacPhail sees another trait of every successful side – getting a result when not playing well – in the class of ’18—19.
The Scot, who Smith signed for just £23,000 from Bristol City in the summer of 1987 as he sought players with experience of lower league football, watched Sunderland go a goal down but still claim a point at home against Fleetwood in September.
“I thought Fleetwood were the better side to be honest, although I know Sunderland had a few injuries so he [Ross] couldn’t play a full team.
“But they still got a result, and then at Walsall at the weekend, you think they’re dead and buried. It shows a lot of character to come back from 2-0 down with 10 men and scrap to make it 2-2. That’s a good sign.”
Sunderland’s second-round exit in December 1987 came after Gates had put them ahead midway through the first half, with goals after the break from Kevin Taylor and David Harle giving the Iron – then in the old Fourth Division – a famous win.
“I know we lost, but I have absolutely no memory of the game!” MacPhail insists. “And I think they’ll be OK this time.”