Sunderland 2 Shrewsbury Town 0 – April 29, 1986
Lawrie McMenemy breathed a big sigh of relief as Sunderland climbed out of the Second Division relegation zone with a priceless home success against fellow strugglers Shrewsbury.
But the Rokermen remained in a precarious position going into the final weekend of the campaign – just a point clear of trouble.
Bizarrely, though, highly-paid manager McMenemy claimed: “We should have been going up with champions Norwich City.”
The vital midweek success against the Shrews left Sunderland – on 47 points – requiring victory over Stoke on the final day to guarantee safety as Middlesbrough (45), Carlisle (46) and Blackburn (46) scrapped to avoid dropping down with stranded bottom club Fulham.
Shrewsbury themselves remained in the mire on 47 – above Sunderland on goal difference – after missing the chance to ensure survival with victory at Roker Park.
The hosts’ second-half performance was their best in weeks as a 15,507 crowd roared Sunderland home.
After goals from Eric Gates and Mark Proctor clinched three precious points, McMenemy said: “I was pleased for our supporters who have been coming all season that they were able to see some of the experienced players showing good football under pressure.
“Really, had they been doing that on a regular basis we would have been top of the league and not at the bottom, with full houses.
“The experienced players showed their value, but they should have been doing it more often.
“If they had, I am sure we would have been up there with Norwich.
“I don’t think I have seen a more one-sided half than the second (against Shrewsbury).”
In a nervy first half, Ian Wallace sent a spectacular overhead kick narrowly wide for Sunderland (third bottom at kick-off), while Paul Johnson cleared off the line after Shaun Elliott’s powerful header, from a Tony Ford cross, beat keeper Steve Perks.
Sunderland’s Andy Dibble made a memorable save, making a one-handed stop to prevent Gary Hackett’s strike hitting the top corner of the net.
Perks denied Proctor’s shot with his outstretched legs soon before having a lucky escape when Gayle headed the rebound over an unguarded net.
Sunderland had to wait until the hour mark to make the breakthrough – with the tension almost unbearable around the ground.
Gates, without a goal since Boxing Day, came up trumps, left unmarked to head home Proctor’s left-wing corner from close range in the 63rd minute.
The decisive corner came from one of many fine saves produced by impressive Shrewsbury goalie Perks, who turned Howard Gayle’s 10-yard piledriver over the bar following a sweet move involving Alan Kennedy and Frank Gray.
Kennedy played his part in the killer second goal, too, supplying the pass for Proctor, who rifled home an unstoppable 25-yarder into the top corner.
Sunderland did not have it all their own way, though, as the visitors chased the point which would ensure their survival.
Gary Bennett had to race back to head over his own bar to deny substitute Gerry Nardiello, and twice in the last minute Dibble made magnificent saves to keep out efforts from Gary Stevens and Colin Robinson.
McMenemy added: “It was a great relief and until we scored the tension built up.
“We then played some of our best football of the season, whereas lesser teams would have been prepared to boot the ball anywhere.”
Footnote: Sunderland escaped the drop on the final day, beating Stoke 2-0, as Carlisle and Boro went down.
Sunderland: Dibble, Venison, Kennedy, Gray, Bennett, Elliott, Ford, Gayle, Wallace, Gates, Proctor. Sub: Atkinson.
Shrewsbury: Perks, Williams, Johnson, Daly, Pearson, Griffin, McNally, Hackett, Stevens, Robinson, Hughes (Nardiello)