Football: Roker's final appointment with past

Simon Turnbull talks to a player who has experienced the trials of the trap-door
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The Independent Online
Next month happens to mark the 90th anniversary of Erich Weiss's bill-topping appearance at the Avenue Theatre, Sunderland. Under his stage name, he performed feats of escapology the like of which have not been seen since in the North-east of England. Until now, perhaps. Only a trick worthy of the man known to his public as Harry Houdini is likely to save both Sunderland and Middlesbrough from the Premiership trapdoor.

In Sunderland's case even victory in their last league match at Roker Park, against Everton next Saturday, and in their final match, away to Wimbledon, may not be enough to guarantee top-billing football at their new 42,000-seater ground next season. You have to delve back to November 1984 to find the last time they won two consecutive fixtures in the top- flight. The chances are that Peter Reid will be in need of some cheering up on the Premiership's day of reckoning, a fortnight today. So too might Bryan Robson and his foreign legion, even with the FA Cup final to come.

Middlesbrough have two games in hand on most of their rivals but those matches, squeezed in between Aston Villa's visit to the Riverside Stadium next Saturday and the last-day fixture at Leeds, could hardly be more daunting. Quite apart from the fact that Middlesbrough have won only once away from home in the Premiership since September, their trip to Old Trafford is likely to coincide with Manchester United's expected coronation party and they follow that potential May Day distress with their overdue appearance at Ewood Park. Blackburn may be mathematically safe by then but they still have a belated score to settle.

This was supposed to be the season in which the North-east reclaimed its title as the hotbed of football. Instead, it has been cooled by the familiar cold blast of underachievement. A fortnight today it could be an outpost again, with only the Toon Army left to fly the Premiership flag for English football's pocket of passion.

Not since the early 1950s have Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough enjoyed successive seasons as top-flight neighbours and rivals. Indeed, since 1954, this is only the second season in which they have been top notchers together. It was Sunderland who dropped out last time, after a 2-0 defeat at Everton in the last game of the 1976-77 season. And Peter Davenport fears they will again be on the outside looking in when the Premiership season kicks off on 9 August.

Davenport has been relegated from the top division with both Sunderland (in 1991) and Middlesbrough (1989). Though preoccupied with promotion at present, as a member of the upwardly mobile Macclesfield side, the former England striker is concerned about the fate of his endangered old clubs. "Don't forget Forest," he said. "Three of my old team could go down but I'm not sure that they will. I think Middlesbrough might still get out of it.

"We were in a similar situation at Sunderland in 1992. Reaching the FA Cup final gave us the spirit and the impetus to get out of trouble in the Second Division, as it still was at the time. I think Middlesbrough, after the break they're getting now, could do the same. They've probably got to win two games but they've got the quality players to score the goals they'll need. Sunderland haven't. I wouldn't be surprised if Sunderland beat Everton but Wimbledon is the last place you want to go needing something on the last day of the season.

"The Southampton game last Tuesday was massive for Sunderland. If they'd won they probably would have stayed up but they're running out of games. It would be terrible for the fans if they did go down because they've dug deep over the years and they haven't had the return. It was the same when I was there. The club just don't spend."

Indeed, the last time Sunderland gained entry to the top-flight (via the back door after Swindon, who outclassed them in the play-off final, were barred because of financial misdemeanours) they trod the same miserly tightrope as they have this season. While fellow graduates Leeds United spent to accumulate a future title-winning team, Denis Smith, Sunderland's manager at the time, was allowed to add only Davenport and Kevin Ball to his team for the ill-fated 1990-91 campaign. It was a wonder that the inevitable was prolonged until the final day and a 3-2 defeat at Maine Road.

"We had to win and better whatever Luton did by two goals," Davenport recalled. "They played at Derby and word filtered through to the pitch that Mick Harford had scored against them. We thought, 'Great!' But he'd actually scored an own goal."

Peter Reid was Manchester City's manager that day and Niall Quinn scored two of their goals. All it needs is another last-day dagger to the heart by the veteran Harford at Selhurst Park on 11 May and Sunderland's past will have caught up with them again.

The bottom line

P W D L F A Pts

Leicester 35 10 10 15 39 50 40

Southampton 36 9 11 16 48 55 38

West Ham 35 9 11 15 34 45 38

Coventry 36 8 14 14 35 51 38

Sunderland 36 9 10 17 32 52 37

Middlesbrough 34 9 9 16 44 54 33

Nottm Forest 36 6 15 15 30 53 33

Middlesbrough three-points deducted

Remaining fixtures

Sunderland: 3 May Everton (h); 11 May Wimbledon (a).

Middlesbrough: 3 May Aston Villa (h); 5 May Manchester United (a); 8 May Blackburn Rovers (a); 11 May Leeds United (a).