Aston Villa versus Sunderland is a fixture that dates back almost to the very beginning of the Football League, for in the League’s formative years the two clubs more or less had a stranglehold on the League title. While Villa of course were “double” winners in 1897, in 1913 they also prevented us from recording our own “double”, by beating us in the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace.
Since those early days, ourselves and Villa have become two of the most respected, successful (Villa slightly more it has to be said) and famous clubs in the world, with most meetings between us having taken place in the top flight. Therefore, a Second Division fixture between Villa and Sunderland in the 1974-75 season maybe appeared a little out of place, even though it was billed as a vital promotion encounter - at least as far as we were concerned.
It was in fact a familiar scenario for Sunderland with our destiny once again hinging our on final game of the season. A win at Villa Park was vital if we were to have a chance of ending our latest “exile” from the First Division.
We’d been amongst the Second Division front runners for nearly all of the 1974-75 season, and while the absence of Ian Porterfield for almost half of the campaign - following a car crash in December - hampered our efforts somewhat, we were still in with a shout of promotion come the final weekend of the season.
Villa, after having endured a slightly inconsistent time during the first few months of the campaign, had seen their own promotion challenge really gain momentum in the New Year, boosted no doubt by a League Cup success at Wembley in March. Thus, by the time the final Saturday came round they were assured of promotion alongside undisputed champions Manchester United (who were heading straight back after one season “downstairs”).
The Villains, however, held the key as to who took the third promotion slot, for aside from Sunderland their other remaining fixture was at Norwich, who were aiming for an immediate return “upstairs” too.
Our mission was therefore crystal clear: win at Villa Park, and hope that Norwich slipped up in either/both of their remaining games. But our own task was not going to be easy, for Villa’s home League record so far in the 74-75 campaign had been impeccable with just one defeat and a mere six goals conceded.
Thus, on Saturday, 26th April 1975, all roads from Wearside led to Birmingham and the scene was set for a rather gripping occasion at Villa Park, which had the “house full” signs up.
The crowd figure was just over 57,000 - easily Villa’s best home gate of the season, and one which included a sizeable contingent from Wearside who no doubt hoped that their legendary support would help bring First Division football back to Roker Park.
In spite of the tense atmosphere we began the game encouragingly and might have gone ahead early on, but both Rod Belfitt and Bobby Kerr couldn’t quite capitalise after some confusion in the Villa defence.
Then, Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson sent in a curling effort which missed the target.
But, gradually the home side came into the game, with County Durham-born Brian Little largely instrumental in their attacking moves.
Jim Montgomery was called upon to make one or two important saves. However, the interval came with the scoreline blank though, when news filtered through that Norwich were 1-0 up at Portsmouth, the pressure on the Lads to get a result was cranked up a notch or two.
We started the second period intently, and Rod Belfitt sent in an effort which had Villa keeper Jim Cumbes in difficulties before he was able to recover. However, this was in all truth our last real effort of note on the Villa goal, for thereafter the home side were to dominate.
There were one or two close calls in our defence before disaster struck in the eighty-first minute. Brian Little’s pace took him on a mazy run into our box, a run which was ended by Bob Moncur - unfortunately in a rather clumsy fashion resulting in the awarding of a penalty, which was duly converted by Villa skipper Ian Ross.
We then responded positively, mainly through Bobby Kerr, Billy Hughes and Bryan Robson, who all had efforts charged down.
Our revival was in vain as three minutes from time Brian Little went on another surging run into our box, and this time he beat “Monty” with an angled drive to put the result beyond doubt.
So Villa assured themselves of runners-up spot while Norwich - who’d won 3-0 at Fratton Park - took the third promotion slot. As for ourselves, we were left to reflect on a season which at one stage had promised so much but had ended in disappointment, not of course for the first time and definitely not the last.
However, as it turned out, we’d make up for this particular setback in the best possible manner by going up as Second Division Champions in 1975-76, meaning we’d be meeting up with Villa in the top flight, which perhaps seemed a more appropriate setting.
And with both ourselves and Villa having seemingly recovered after having experienced bad fortunes in recent times, I hope that our paths may cross again in the not-too-distant future, only in the Premier League, when dare I say we both may experience some long-overdue success.