Wearside Leaves Gracefully; Manchester City 3 v 2 Sunderland AFC, 11 May 1991

Wearside Leaves Gracefully; Manchester City 3 v 2 Sunderland AFC, 11 May 1991


Manchester City 3 v 2 Sunderland AFC, Saturday 11 May 1991, Maine Road, Football League Division 1 39,194

Devotion to the cause at Maine Road 1991
Devotion to the cause at Maine Road 1991


It could be said that justice has caught up with a Sunderland team promoted last season only because of the disqualifications of another club. But where Sunderland are concerned it is hard not to let sentimentality enter the argument. Though someone had to go down from the first division on Saturday, there will be many who wish it had been Luton.

This is partly down to the Kenilworth Road image problem and partly due to the fact that Sunderland are a club carried so deeply in the hearts of their supporters that the passion warms even those who would be neutral.

The unofficial figure had 15,000 Wearsiders inside Maine Road, about 5,000 above Luton’s average home gate. And although their beloved club was relegated at the end of the game they were buoyant and full of grace, swapping shirts and scarves with equally gracious Manchester City fans over the police divide that was supposed to separate them.

As Denis Smith and his players walked out for the second time since the game had ended 45 minutes earlier to applaud this fancy dressed army of Robin Hoods, tomatoes and sheikhs, emotions needed reminding that the club had actually been relegated.

“Unbelievable”, said Smith on returning misty eyed with his equally tear stained players. “How can you be relegated and have people chanting for you like that. Grown men out there are crying, kids are crying; they hurt as much as the players. It’s difficult to put my feelings into words”.

The supporters had less of a problem. “Always look on the bright side of life” they sang as City’s third goal went in. They knew their team was not great but they knew it had tried.

Sunderland needed Luton to lose, or win by fewer goals, but the best it looked was on 43 minutes and 50 seconds when Sunderland were two one up and the Radio 5 announcer at Luton ann0unced, “if I tell you that we have a goal here and the scorer is Mick Harford…”. The visiting hordes went wild and told the players. Then the truth emerged; an own goal. The club did not deserve such teasing.

In the end what let down the team was what has let it down all season; an inability through inexperience to hold on to a lead. Perhaps last season’s sudden promotion worked against them, for this side could have done with more time in the second division, this season not next.

“But we’ll be a lot stronger through what has happened this year” said Smith. “Our supporters deserve a first division club and next season I’ll get them one”. You would not bet against it.

Martin Thorpe, The Guardian

Sunderland score; game on!
Sunderland score; game on!

There are games that Sunderland fans will remember forever and those who attended Maine Road to once more witness a Sunderland team relegated still have vivid memories of the scenes that accompanied every twist and turn in what was a dramatic afternoon.

Going into the game Manchester City were one point ahead of their local rivals from Old Trafford. For them it meant bragging rights at the end of the game if they won. It would also mean 5th place for Peter Reid’s team. For Sunderland the equation was pretty simple, better whatever Luton Town did. Both teams lay 2nd and 3rd bottom respectively with an identical goal difference of -21. The Scene was set.

Sunderland came out to a deafening roar from an estimated 15,000 travelling fans but were soon behind to a smartly taken goal by Niall Quinn. However Sunderland hung on in and a bullet header by Marco from a John Kay cross saw the teams level. Just before half time Gary Bennett out Sunderland 2 v 1 up with a deflected header. However a mistake by Owers let in Niall Quinn and the Irishman equalised. At the interval however it wasn’t looking too bad for Sunderland.

The second half however would go badly as Sunderland struggled to break down the City defence. News filtered through that Luton Town were winning 2 v 0 against Derby at Kenilworth Road. Sunderland now needed a further 2 goals to stay up but it wasn’t to be as White scored for the home side to give them a 3 v 2 win.

Sunderland were down.

However the scenes that followed would live long in the memory as Sunderland fans young and old clapped, cheered and cried themselves into what could only be described as a frenzy; scenes that were captured by the national press:


“If points were awarded for class on the terraces instead of on the pitch Sunderland would have few worries about first division survival. Sadly they are not and despite the presence of the most numerous, boisterous and insanely optimistic travelling support in the league the Wearsiders will return to the second division whence they came.

But even in bidding farewell to the first division the Sunderland fans could not resist one more rousing chorus of “by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” in flagrant disregard of the empirical evidence. The first division can only be the poorer for lack of such traditional support”
Paul Wilson, The Observer


“The North East does have a success story. It is about the devotion and loyalty of their football fans in the face of such failure”. 

Tony Hardisty, Sunday Express

“A cameo of breathtaking emotion encapsulated Sunderland’s season just minutes after the final curtain had fallen on their brief first division sojourn. Against a vivid red and white backdrop two teenage boys proudly bedecked in the sky blue of Manchester City stood weeping unashamedly in the main stand. 
The tears that spilled down their young faces were an emotional tribute to the legions of vociferous Sunderland fans who turned Maine Road into a theatre of passion”.

Brian McNally, The Journal


There was an interesting twist to the game which had occurred when the Sunderland fans got wind of a Mick Harford goal in the Luton v Derby game at Kenilworth Road. However and as if to twist the knife deeper it transpired that it was an own goal. It could literally only happen to Sunderland AFC. Once more the second division beckoned but what a day and what an occasion it had been.

Yet again the flaws of Sunderland AFC had been revealed but once more partly masked by their magnificent fans.


Manchester City – Quinn (10 & 45), White (90)

Sunderland AFC: Gabbiadini (40), Bennett (44)

Manchester City: Margetson, Hill, Ponton, Heath, Hendry, Redmond, White, Brennan, Quinn, Harper, Clarke (Beckford) Sub: Ward

Sunderland: Norman, Owers, Hardyman (Hauser), Bennett, Ord, Pascoe, Bracewell, Hawke (Brady), Davenport, Gabbiadini, Kay

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