So... what happened?
It all stems back to one evening in May, 1977. For those who don’t know, you’d be forgiven in assuming Sunderland were playing Coventry. In actual fact, Coventry were at home to Bristol City, whilst Sunderland were playing at Goodison Park.
Due to a fixture pile-up, the final relegation games of the 1976-77 season had been rescheduled to a Thursday night. Sunderland, Coventry City and Bristol City were level on points, but Coventry had the worst goal difference. Coventry simply had to win, as both Sunderland and Bristol City were safe with a draw. In fact, we could afford to lose, provided the other game had a winner.
Sunderland had gained promotion the year before but we’d had a nightmare start, taking only nine points from the first twenty-three matches. Yet going into the final game of the season, we were top of the form table: P16 W9 D7 L2 F33 A16. That included 6-0 and 6-1 wins in consecutive home games. Such was our form that a defeat was regarded as unlikely, so Coventry had to make home advantage count.
The night began in controversial circumstances as Jimmy Hill, Coventry’s managing director, had the game delayed by more than 10 minutes, officially because of crowd congestion. The home side raced into a two-goal lead before Bristol City pulled a goal back.
With a quarter of an hour to go, the Robins were in the ascendancy. Don Gillies made it 2-2 with 12 minutes to go. Coventry were in danger of conceding a damaging third goal, just as Sunderland’s game finished. We had lost 2-0.
According to the following day’s Daily Mirror, Hill (who had made sure he had up-to-date information from Everton) “raced to the announcer’s box with the result, screaming ‘Get it on the board’”. It was also announced over the tannoy system.
Both sets of players and every fan crammed into the ground knew they were safe, if the game ended 2-2. For the remaining time, neither side made a competitive effort to win the football match. Indeed, for the last five minutes Bristol City passed the ball between defenders and goalkeeper with not a single challenge from a Coventry player.
Coventry City were subsequently charged with influencing the outcome of a game by erroneous or foul means, for which they were found guilty. Jimmy Hill, as managing director, received a reprimand from the FA, but the result stood. Sunderland were relegated.
What may have occurred during those final fifteen minutes, had the Sunderland result not been known, no-one can truly say. It’s safe to suggest that Bristol City were the team most likely to score the decisive goal, which would have relegated Coventry on home turf. Certainly, many Sunderland fans believe this would have been the outcome and have maintained a level of animosity towards the Sky Blues as a result.
Moreover, the architect of both the delayed kick-off and score announcement, Jimmy Hill, was never forgiven. When being presented to the Fulham crowd as one of their previous star players in 2008, Hill was bombarded with abuse from the away end, housing Sunderland fans. Hill simply waved in response, before being ushered away by police for his own safety.
Many Bristol City fans have reputed the ‘alleged’ nature of the crowd congestion. It is true that between 15,000 and 18,000 fans travelled up to Coventry that evening. The size of the crowd and the demand to get in is not in question. The issue, for Sunderland fans, is a similar number travelled to Merseyside and the crowd at Goodison Park that evening was higher than that at Highfield Road. Yet our game kicked off at 7:30pm, as planned.
For those who lived through the events of May 1977, forgiveness was never an option. Jimmy Hill had been found guilty of cheating. Coventry and Bristol City players had acted unprofessionally in not contesting the final quarter of an hour of a football match that would determine another club’s fate. Over time, Bristol City’s involvement has largely been forgotten, but Coventry City is a different matter entirely and memories are long.
It’s 2018 - should we still be angry?
Yes, we are now in 2018 - 41 years on from those events. During that period, both sides have written their own history and consigned this episode to distant memory. Generations of new fans have been attracted to support both teams without any knowledge of the simmering bitterness felt by a previous generation.
Fast-forward to May 2012. Sergio Aguero scores a last-minute goal against QPR and Man City become the first team to win the league title on goal difference. Moments earlier, Manchester United players had applauded their travelling fans at the Stadium of Light, in the assumption that their victory had secured the title.
As news filtered through to the crowd that day, Sunderland fans turned their backs to the pitch, linked arms and performed the Poznan, made famous by Man City fans.
Six years on, that act still rankles deeply with those of red persuasion – so much so that Twitter is often full of United fans speaking of Sunderland’s recent demise as ‘revenge’.
The response of our fans is often to ‘get over it’. Now, for us, clearly a bit of rival banter is not the same as suffering relegation, but, for Man Utd fans, they’d suffered the loss of the title in agonising conditions - just as we had lost the right to stay in the league back in 1977.
But, in both cases, the message should be the same.
Forty years on, surely it’s time we ‘get over it’?
Whilst the actions of Jimmy Hill are reprehensible, the fact is no-one knows if either side could have won that game. Coventry were the side that had to find a third goal, yet it was Bristol City who looked more likely. Sunderland had been one down, going into the final moments, and had been caught on the break whilst pressing for an equaliser. Could the same have happened at Highfield Road and City won it? Or would City have simply defended, knowing a draw was enough for them? We’ll never now.
Also, we were not relegated because we lost at Everton or because Coventry and Bristol drew that night. We were relegated because we managed a mere nine points from twenty-three games earlier in the season.
Whilst our league form suggested we were primed to pull off a great escape, it wasn’t to be. We have had many more years, in recent history, when that has been the case, so why should we linger in bitterness for events in the mid-Seventies?
As we look to take a bumper crowd to the Ricoh on Saturday, please let this fixture be all about Jack Ross and Sunderland’s intent to move up the footballing pyramid, rather than dig up an event that is better left buried in the past.