Having narrowly averted an immediate return to the Second Division at the end of our First Division comeback season of 1980-81, most of us no doubt hoped that season 1981-82 would bring improved fortune.
However, by a rather strange quirk of fate, the Football League’s fixture computer had presented us with a tough start to the 1981-82 campaign with a trip to the previous season’s First Division runners-up and UEFA Cup winners Ipswich on the opening day, while our first home game would be against the actual League Champions themselves, namely Aston Villa. A rather interesting but tough start indeed!
However, as has sometimes been the case when we’ve been up against superior opposition, we upset the odds slightly on the first day of the 1981-82 season when we forced a 3-3 draw at Portman Road. Indeed, some felt we were perhaps unlucky not to have taken all three points (three points for a win had been introduced for season 1981-82), but after having led 3-1 at one stage, we allowed ourselves to be pegged back when a brace from a certain Eric Gates helped rescue a point for Ipswich.
Nevertheless, our meeting newly-crowned League Champions Aston Villa at Roker Park on Wednesday, September 2 was still eagerly anticipated, a more attractive fixture for our first home engagement of the season we could not have wished for.
And a bumper crowd of 29,372 assembled inside Roker, hoping to see us get off the winning mark for the season - and none of them were to go home disappointed.
While we tended to shade the first twenty minutes or so - when our best effort saw Mick Buckley test Villa keeper Jimmy Rimmer with a powerful twenty-five yard drive - our illustrious visitors were by no means idle up front. Proof of which came when Chris Turner had to rush out of his box to head clear from the on-rushing Peter Withe, and then leap backwards to turn a header from Allan Evans over the bar.
But it still came as a bit of a shock when Villa went ahead in the twenty-third minute, and from a defensive point of view we maybe had cause to be disappointed.
A long ball from Allan Evans down the right caught our defence square, and Chris Turner came off his line only to hesitate and leave himself in no-mans land - Terry Donovan took full advantage of this rather uncharacteristic moment of indecision by our young keeper when he seized on the ball, took it wide of Turner, then advanced before scoring from a narrow angle.
A bit of a setback then, but we responded positively, and twice within a minute we were denied an equalizer by the sharp reflexes of Jimmy Rimmer. Firstly, he tipped a close-range header from Joe Hinnigan over the bar, then from the resulting corner the Villa stopper made a superb reflex save when Tom Ritchie fired in a fierce, low drive.
But Villa came close to adding to their lead, for when a free-kick from Tony Morley took a deflection off our defensive wall and fell kindly for Dennis Mortimer his shot struck the legs of Chris Turner, with the keeper apparently knowing little about it.
In the thirty-sixth minute we drew level - a free-kick from Nick Pickering picked out Jeff Clarke, who played the ball back into the middle to find Tom Ritchie, who turned and cracked the ball home with some aplomb.
Ex-Mag Peter Withe then came close to restoring his side’s lead just before the break when he met a free-kick unchallenged, but thankfully his header was off target. And this rather glaring miss would come back to haunt Villa - just three minutes into the second period we went ahead for the first time in the game.
Villa defender Kenny Swain fouled Gary Rowell on the edge of the box, and Mick Buckley’s free-kick picked out Tom Ritchie, who was denied a second goal by another great save by Jimmy Rimer. However the keeper could only palm the ball to the far post, when the ever-alert Gary Rowell was waiting to pounce, and he gleefully headed home what eventually proved to be the winner.
Villa were no doubt stung by this setback, indeed, it was the cue for more or less non-stop pressure from the League Champions as they sought a way back into the game.
However, we managed to put on a defensive master class with Jeff Clarke, Rob Hindmarch and Mick Buckley in particular outstanding for us as we hung onto our slender advantage.
Our record summer signing Ally McCoist came on for his home debut in place of John Cooke near the end, but with us committed to a more or less constant defensive exercise, there was little chance for the youngster to shine.
Still, we held out for the win - it had been achieved through a solid, workmanlike performance rather than anything spectacular, though we’d still opened our winning account for the new season. As a bonus, it was a victory against one of the First Division’s big guns.
Unfortunately the Villa victory was one of few highlights in 1981-82 as we wouldn’t witness another league win on home soil until the following March v Southampton, by which time we found ourselves in an all-too-familiar scenario - a battle for First Division survival.
We did defeat the table-topping Saints, Kevin Keegan et al, by 2-0 at Roker in what was surely one of the surprise results of the season, but one which took us off the bottom of the First Division table.
In spite of this welcome and long overdue home win, and an equally welcome point from a battling 0-0 draw against title challengers Manchester United at Old Trafford at the end of March, things still looked bleak as we entered April.
Due to the fact that some of our relegation rivals were also starting to pick up points at the right time, we found ourselves rather firmly ensconced in the First Division’s bottom three and seemingly staring the Second Division in the face, with time and games starting to run out.
Fortunately however, we needn’t have feared - the side’s form improved just when it mattered most in the final run-in and we eventually survived, albeit with not much to spare following a narrow last-day 1-0 win v Manchester City at Roker. Some things never change!