Sunderland’s relegation to the third tier after the aggregate play-off semi-final defeat to Third Division Gillingham on Sunday, May 17, 1987, was described as the blackest day for the club and town.
The club’s first ever relegation in 1958 finally ended Sunderland’s ever-present stay in the top flight that went all the way back to the 1890-91 season when they were accepted into the Football League.
There were six league championship successes and an FA Cup triumph in that time.
Playing in the second tier was bad enough. Now, in 1987, Sunderland fans would be watching Third Division football for the first time at Roker Park.
The plan had been very different when Lawrie McMenemy took charge on July 11, 1985.
The former Southampton boss was a big name in football, and he accepted a big pay offer from Sunderland chairman Tom Cowie to return to his native North East.
Fans expected promotion, but it didn’t happen.
McMenemy’s first season saw Sunderland finish in 18th place - their worst ever finish.
The 1986-87 campaign was more of the same and McMenemy was relieved of his duties with seven games to go, his tenure ending after a 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield United, in front of just 8,544 disenchanted fans at Roker Park.
Under him, Sunderland had won one point in his last six games, with the team plummeting deep into relegation trouble.
The ‘Messiah’ Bob Stokoe, who had led the club to the incredible 1973 FA Cup success, was given the task of turning the fortunes around quickly and preventing the dreaded drop.
Stokoe’s first five games brought two wins, one draw, and two defeats.
The final week of the season saw Sunderland visit Millwall on a Tuesday night. It was 14 years to the day after Sunderland’s Wembley triumph over mighty Leeds United.
This game at The Den was witnessed by just 4.211 fans. Michael Marks gave the hosts the lead just before half-time, but 20-year-old Gordon Armstrong headed a second half equaliser to keep Sunderland’s destiny in their own hands.
A win at home to mid-table Barnsley - who had nothing to play for - on the final day of the season would assure safety.
Grimsby and Brighton were already relegated, but five teams still had a chance of taking the final ‘relegation’ place, which meant going into a play-off system alongside three Third Division sides.
After half an hour at Roker Park, safety looked assured following a brilliant headed goal from Keith Bertschin and a thundering drive from Frank Gray to make it 2-0. Surely Barnsley would have no fight left in them now?
Not so. They pulled one back just before half-time when Jim Dobbin fired past Iain Hesford with a pile-driver from 25 yards.
Sunderland were then handed the chance to seal the win on 62 minutes when the referee penalised a push on Eric Gates and awarded a penalty.
Mark Proctor had five successful penalties under his belt that season, but this time his effort from 12 yards was pushed away by keeper Clive Baker.
Three minutes later, former Sunderland forward Rodger Wylde levelled the scores from close range and just another four minutes later, Gwyn Thomas gave Barnsley their winning goal.
The defeat saw Sunderland drop into the third bottom slot - and meant they had to face a Gillingham side who had finished fifth in the Third Division to claim the last of three play-off places.
The Echo commented: “Bob Stokoe didn’t perform the hoped-for miracle on Saturday, but there can be few people on Wearside who believe that the Roker Lads would already be celebrating a great escape from relegation had Lawrie McMenemy still been in charge.
“As it is, the club still has a fighting chance to avoid the ignominious drop.”
It was also noted: “The recent history of Sunderland Football Club is one of too many comings and goings on the management scene.”
Sunderland now faced the semi-final first leg at Gillingham on the Thursday evening, before hosting the second leg on Sunday.
In an effort to reward the long-suffering home fans, Sunderland reduced prices for the home game. Seats prices were reduced from £5 to £4, while Paddock standing and the Roker and Fulwell Ends were priced at £2.
Before the first game, the Echo’s Geoff Storey reported on the departed McMenemy’s hopes for Sunderland.
He wrote: “McMenemy firmly believes he would have guided Sunderland to safety if he had not been forced into resigning with just seven games of another traumatic season remaining, but on the eve of the first leg semi-final Second Division play-off at Gillingham, he has made a passionate plea to the players.
‘I am desperate for Sunderland to stay up and I just hope the players feel the same way,’ said Lawrie from his home in Hampshire where he retreated to escape from nationwide media attention a month ago.
McMenemy is under no illusion he will be blamed if Sunderland are relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history but believes there is sufficient experience to pull through.
‘It’s been agony watching these results come through when you can’t do anything about it,’ he said.
‘I felt positive they would win on Saturday, especially when they were two up. The one thing you want is fight and that is why the Sunderland players must call on all their reserves to pull through.
‘It would be a disaster for the club and the town if Sunderland were relegated.’”
The first leg on the evening of Thursday, May 14, brought the headline ‘Hesford’s nightmare’ in the Echo as Sunderland lost 3-2.
The keeper was blamed for two of the goals as Gillingham recovered from falling behind to a Proctor penalty, to lead 3-1 thanks to a hat-trick from Tony Cascarino.
Proctor netted a second goal though, to leave the tie in the balance ahead the Roker return - though maybe Sunderland had the edge after scoring two away goals that would come into the reckoning if the scores were level after extra-time in the second leg.
There were 25,470 fans at Roker Park, and most were stunned when Howard Pritchard scored for Gillingham just three minutes in. But two goals from Eric Gates on 17 and 22 minutes had them roaring again.
The home side might have had two penalties before the referee did award a spot-kick for a handball offence - but Proctor’s effort was blocked by Gillingham keeper Phil Kite.
The visitors regained their aggregate lead from another penalty after Hesford had upended Pritchard. The keeper blocked Colin Greenall’s spot-kick but the ball was put back into the box and Cascarino forced it home.
Time was running out for Sunderland, but Gary Bennett was pushed forward and headed an 88th minute goal to make it 3-2 and force extra-time with the scores level at 5-5 on aggregate.
However, just three minutes into the added 30, Cascarino scored his second of the night to stun the home crowd - meaning Sunderland had to score twice more to save themselves.
Bertschin got one with a flying header, but Sunderland could not find another. The final whistle went and Sunderland were down and out.
The Echo’s Geoff Storey wrote: “Not since Alan Brown took Sunderland down from the First Division has there been a blacker day in the history of Sunderland Football Club.
“What happened to this once proud club at Roker Park was a disgrace. Sunderland in the Third Division is unthinkable and unforgiveable.”
A gutted chairman Bob Murray said: “I am sharing my grief with thousands upon thousands of Sunderland supporters - especially the 25,000 who were at Roker Park.
“We will be back though. I can assure our supporters there will only be a short period of mourning. Relegation has obviously altered our way of thinking on a new manager.”
Stokoe did not want the job full-time.
“If I had been approaching my 50th birthday instead of my 60th, I would have begged for the job,” he said.
“It takes a lot of energy and total dedication to run a football club of this size. I have been through it all before and in all honesty I don’t think I could go through it all again.
“Lawrie McMenemy proved he was not the right man for the job but at the end of the day I have to accept the responsibility of taking Sunderland down to the Third Division.”
History, though, has put the blame firmly at McMenemy’s feet.