There was euphoria on Wearside in the summer of 1976 following our Second Division promotion success of the previous season - but perhaps not too surprisingly, and not for the first time, this soon turned into a nightmare scenario when adjustment to life at the top again proved to be difficult to say the least.
So much so that by early February 1977 we were rooted to the foot of the First Division, and appearing all but down and out after a rather incredible but at the same time dreadful ruin of eleven winless games which comprised of nine straight defeats and just one solitary goal for our efforts. To say that things looked bad was perhaps the biggest understatement of all time, and it looked as if it would take the miracle of all miracles to extricate us from a seemingly hopeless position.
But there then came a turning point when we faced fellow strugglers Bristol City in a Friday night game at Roker Park, for we proceeded to chalk up only our third league win of the season by 1-0, courtesy of a late second-half Mel Holden goal. And while we remained in bottom spot, this more-than welcome success perhaps gave fresh hope that we may, just may, stave off the seemingly inevitable.
Our next match, also at Roker, couldn’t have been more demanding when Jack Charlton brought his Middlesbrough side on the short journey up the A19 for the Wear-Tees derby.
The Boro were riding high in fourth place in the First Division and looking a fair bet to take the league title, while they were also through to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Clearly then it was a daunting task which faced us but, as is often the case in derby clashes, the form book can go out of the window, as we were to prove in quite emphatic style as we recorded what was surely one of the shock results of the season to give our hopes of avoiding the drop a massive shot in the arm.
As perhaps befitted such an occasion, the opening period proved to be keenly-contested as both ourselves and Boro strove to gain the upper hand. Such was the tension of the occasion that Peter Brine was twice booked for fouls on Gary Rowell and Shaun Elliott.
Then, just before the half-hour mark we forced a vital breakthrough, though we needed a slight element of good fortune. Shaun Elliott played a long ball forward which looked like being dealt with comfortably by Peter Brine - however, the Boro man seemed to hesitate, which allowed Bob Lee to nip in and win the ball, and the latter went on to hammer a left-foot drive past keeper Pat Cuff in spite of a desperate late challenge from Stuart Boam.
First blood to us then.
Just eleven minutes into the second-half we doubled our advantage. Alan Brown - on as a substitute for Jeff Clarke, who’d gone off injured at the break following an early tussle with Stuart Boam - started the move with a long ball forward to set Mel Holden free.
The lanky forward went on to beat Pat Cuff with a powerful right-foot shot from just inside the penalty area.
Rattled by this setback, Middlesbrough fought back strongly in a bit to retrieve the deficient, and Barry Siddall was forced to make a fine save to deny Alf Wood - but, we continued to call the tune and we wrapped the game up with two goals within five minutes near the end.
In the eighty-first minute, Kevin Arnott forced home the rebound after an Alan Brown shot had been charged down, then in the eighty-sixth minute, Gary Rowell headed home a fine fourth goal following a centre from Bobby Kerr.
4-0 then - our best home league win of the campaign so far, while as a bonus our goal difference had also taken a welcome boost. However, in spite of this fine victory, we remained rooted to the foot of the First Division but were now just three points behind fourth-bottom Derby County - though we had played more games than The Rams, and indeed our other relegation rivals.
This second successive win had perhaps indicated that there was life in us after all, and that we weren’t prepared to give up our First Division place without a good scrap. And better was to come in the next two games, also at Roker, for just three days hence we battered West Brom by 6-1, with Bob Lee claiming a hat-trick, then followed this up with a 6-0 hammering of fellow strugglers West Ham in a vital four-pointer.
The revival was on with a vengeance!
While we continued to display this near Championship form thereafter, our fate still went down to the wire and sadly we were to be rather cruelly denied First Division survival.
A 0-2 defeat in our final game at Everton, coupled with Coventry and Bristol City’s rather controversial 2-2 draw at Highfield Road on the same night - with delayed kick-offs et al, a game which has been the subject of a fair bit of controversy and debate amongst the Sunderland faithful - meant we went down with Stoke and Spurs.
Our brave fightback had ultimately been in vain.
Who ever said that life or indeed football is always just or fair?