Things were looking good as we neared the end of the first half of the 1975-76 season, for at the end of November we stood four points clear at the top of the Second Division - helped in no small way by a more or less perfect record at Roker when we’d dropped just one point from our first eleven home league fixtures.
It was certainly the home form of potential promotion winners/champions. Unfortunately, our away form in contrast had been rather lack-lustre, a point illustrated quite graphically when we lost our first fixture of December at Southampton by a rather embarrassing 0-4 scoreline. A result which maybe illustrated that the road back to the First Division would not necessarily be without one or two pitfalls along the way.
We had the perfect chance to make amends for this setback at The Dell the following week when struggling Oxford United visited Roker Park. While on paper at least the game seemed a home banker our visitors would not necessarily prove to be pushovers, for they’d been something of a thorn in our side in the previous two meetings.
In the season’s first meeting at The Manor Ground back in August, we’d been denied a first away win of the campaign, when Bobby Moncur’s goal had been cancelled out by a late Oxford equalizer near the end. Then near the end of the 1974-75 campaign, a 0-1 defeat at The Manor had proved to be detrimental to our promotion push - so we were also perhaps on something of a revenge mission.
We were dealt a blow before the game when leading scorer Bryan “Pop” Robson was ruled out for the first time in the campaign due to an attack of flu - his place was taken by Dennis Longhorn, while on the substitutes bench was a certain Gary Rowell, who would of course go on to achieve legendary SAFC status.
So on a freezing cold afternoon, and on a snow-covered Christmas cake-type pitch, we kicked off attacking the Fulwell End in front of a crowd of around 22,000.
Our first real chance came when Vic Halom headed on a Mel Holden throw-in - the ball eventually falling to Dick Malone, who hit a powerful shot which just cleared the bar. And Malone was back in the thick of the action again soon afterwards, for when a free-kick was only half-cleared by the Oxford defence the ball fell kindly to our Scottish full-back, whose fierce shot was well saved by keeper Roy Burton.
We kept up the pressure, and Burton was forced to make another fine save from a long-range effort from Bobby Kerr. Then when play switched briefly to the other end, Wallsend-born Mick Tait was well off-target with a forty-yard free-kick. But normal service was soon resumed, and Vic Halom and Tony Towers combined well to set up a chance for Ian Porterfield, whose chip shot just cleared the bar.
Bobby Kerr then forced another save from Roy Burton as the one-way traffic towards the Oxford goal continued. Indeed, such was the visitors apparent defensive approach, it seemed that their aim was no more than a point - maybe not a complete surprise given their lowly league placing. And it took a rather desperate challenge by North Shields-born Les Taylor (who’d later play in the successful Watford side of the early-mid 1980s) to halt Mel Holden, who’d worked himself into a dangerous position. We then missed a great chance to take the lead when an Ian Porterfield corned picked out Vic Halom - the latter rather inexplicably headed over the top from almost on the goalline.
Ian Porterfield then had a low drive deflected behind for a corner which came to nothing, then in a rather rare Oxford attack, Andy McCulloch wasted a good chance by shooting straight at Jim Montgomery. Dick Malone then again tested Roy Burton, this time with a left-foot effort. Burton and his team-mates had a let-off shortly before half-time when the keeper was unable to hold a shot from Dennis Longhorn, and was fortunate that Vic Halom arrived just too late to take advantage of the slip, as the first-half ended goalless.
The first real chance of the second period was set up by Bobby Kerr, who went clear on the right and crossed to find Mel Holden, but unfortunately his header was well off-target. Up until then Jim Montgomery had seldom been troubled, but he produced the best save of the game so far when Oxford’s ex-Chelsea winger Peter Houseman hit a great twenty-five yard shot which took a wicked deflection and looked to have wrong-footed Monty, though he was able to change direction just in time.
Montgomery then had to dive bravely at the feet of Andy McCulloch to prevent what seemed a certain goal after a bad back-pass from Tony Towers. But we continued to do the bulk of the attacking, and Roy Burton produced a brilliant save to deny Mel Holden, who’d been set up by the combined efforts of Vic Halom and Mick Henderson.
Mel Holden was then replaced by Gary Rowell, who was thus experiencing his first taste of league football, and he’d showed one or two fine touches, and maybe a taste of what was to come in later years. There was then a tense battle in front of the Oxford goal as we strove the vital breakthrough, and following the award of a free-kick Bobby Kerr pushed the ball through to Mick Henderson, whose effort scraped the top of the bar.
Roy Burton was then forced to make fine saves from Tony Towers and Gary Rowell as we stepped up the pressure, but were finding it hard to break down the packed Oxford defence.
But just when it looked as though we’d end up frustrated, we finally cracked the visitors resistance in the very last minute. Jeff Clarke started the move on the right when he played a long pass to Bobby Kerr, who hammered the ball into the box where it found his fellow Scot Ian Porterfield, who gleefully side footed the ball home to give us both points, much to the relief of most of those inside Roker Park.
So we remained two points clear at the top of the Second Division as we reached the half-way stage of the season. It had not been a particularly scintillating performance on our part, due perhaps in no small way to the conditions, also the rather defensive outlook of Oxford. But our persistence had ultimately brought its due reward in the shape of two valuable points, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.