Ha’Way Back When: Why Jack Ross’ Sunderland squad is well placed to follow in footsteps of 1987-88 side

Gary Bennett and his Sunderland teammates celebrate.
Gary Bennett and his Sunderland teammates celebrate.
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Club legend Gary Bennett believes Jack Ross’ Sunderland are well placed to follow in the footsteps of the 1987-88 side and win promotion at the first attempt.

The first - and last time - Sunderland spent a year in the third tier, Bennett was part of the side that bounced straight back up as champions - finishing nine points ahead of second-placed Brighton.

SAFC coverage in association with John Hogg

SAFC coverage in association with John Hogg

And the former skipper believes there are similarities between the promotion-winning side and the current crop.

Ross & Co have work to do to achieve their promotion ambitions given the Black Cats sit fifth after 12 League One games but Bennett is confident they have what it takes.

And he also sees similarities between Ross and Denis Smith.

Bennett told the Echo: “Denis is a very confident person and that rubbed off onto the players.

“We had a good team spirit off the field and we took that on to the field and you can see that this season too, there is a good team spirit and bond.

“We had that in ‘87 and that was through the manager and coaching staff and you can see it through Jack Ross and his staff; good man managers and the players are responding.

“No matter what level you play, you want to win games and it brings a feel-good factor. You look forward to every game because you are scoring goals and winning, rather than sitting back and defending every game.

“The fans also have that contact with players now, there is a togetherness and they are talking to the fans.

“For the last three or four years there hasn’t been that connection.

“Now it is more like it used to be and the players are relating to the supporters too.”

Bennett added: “Also, the younger players coming through this season has been pleasing to see, to see them getting - and grabbing - their opportunities.

“Blending that youth with the more experienced players - Maguire, Cattermole, Loovens and McLaughlin.

“In ‘87 we had five or six young players in the team then too coming through the system.”

The signing of Marco Gabbiadini, signed for £80,000 from York in ‘87, proved a masterstroke with the striker finishing with 21 goals, two more than his G-Force striker partner Eric Gates.

Josh Maja, with nine goals in 12 games, is spearheading Sunderland’s promotion bid this time round in what is proving a fiercely competitive division.

Asked if the current crop are well placed to win promotion at the first attempt, Bennett - who made 350 Sunderland appearances – said: “They are indeed.

“Look at the squad, there are a few injuries, but I expect them to go on a run, they are starting to come to terms with what the division is all about.

“It is not easy to get out the division first time but you need to.

“It is all new this year and we are enjoying it but you only want it to be one season.”

Will it be harder to win the league this time round, compared to 30 years ago?

“It is difficult to compare the division then to now but the level has certainly been raised with Sunderland in the division this year,” added Bennett.

“You can see it at away games - the atmosphere is raised, big numbers of away fans at Coventry, Bradford, 4,000 at Doncaster next week.

“Everywhere is a sell-out and for the home teams, when you have been used to 300-400 away fans turning up and then all of a sudden it is in the thousands, there is a different level of excitement.”