Towards the end of November 1984 everything in the garden seemed fairly rosy as far as Sunderland AFC were concerned.
We’d recently suffered back-to-back defeats at Watford and West Ham respectively, but we were still comfortably placed in mid-table after a fairly solid start to the 1984-85 campaign, including what was turning out to be a promising run in the Milk Cup.
After having accounted for both Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest the prospect of our first-ever appearance in the Milk Cup final seemed a fairly realistic proposition, even though we faced a tricky fourth round replay against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane that followed a goalless draw at Roker Park.
Before then however, league business again took priority, and just three days after the Milk Cup draw with Spurs we were back on home territory as we hosted Manchester United.
Ron Atkinson’s side were once again hot title favourites and were second in the table prior to their visit to Roker, though their away record to date had by no means been brilliant, as was perhaps exemplified by the 0-5 beating they’d suffered a few weeks previous at resurgent Everton, who were now league leaders.
So 25,405 supporters - our best gate of the season to date - turned up to see if we could maintain our rather proud unbeaten home record so far in 84-85. As it transpires none of them were to go home disappointed, after witnessing something of a thriller.
With the advantage of a strong breeze behind us we began the first-half brightly, and had a great chance to take the lead in only the first minute.
Manchester United keeper Gary Bailey was penalized for taking too many steps and the free-kick was played to Barry Venison, who unfortunately failed to keep his effort down; the ball going high over the top. United responded immediately and should really have gone ahead from another dead-ball situation. A free-kick for a foul on Mark Hughes by Gary Bennett was headed out by Gordon Chisholm but the ball was quickly returned into the box.
Much to the relief of the home support, Norman Whiteside rather inexplicably struck the underside of the bar from only six yards out before Peter Daniel cleared to safety.
But United were not to be denied and were soon back to stun the home crowd with a quick two-goal blast. After thirteen minutes Bryan Robson, having had an initial effort blocked following a free-kick, regained possession and sent in a rather innocuous-looking twenty-yard drive which eluded Chris Turner and crept just inside the upright.
Just two minutes later it was 0-2, as a fine through ball from Whiteside put Mark Hughes away, and though the Welshman appeared to be offside he was allowed to go and give Turner no chance with a fierce drive.
Having witnessed a painful 1-5 home drubbing by United just three years earlier, I secretly feared that they’d now go on to inflict similar punishment...
Fortunately this wasn’t to be, as the early setback had stung us into life and, straight from the restart, we pulled a goal back when Colin West headed on to set Clive Walker free for the ex-Chelsea man to storm through and comfortably beat Bailey.
Shortly afterwards the game exploded into life - not goal-wise - but when David Hodgson and Hughes indulged in a spot of “handbags”, leaving the referee with no option but to send both players for an early bath.
With both teams down to ten men, and after Gordon Strachan had missed a good chance to increase his side’s lead, a wind-assisted cross from Daniel had Bailey in difficulties; the ‘keeper just managing to prevent the ball from dipping under the crossbar.
We were relieved again shortly afterwards when Mike Duxbury had a goal disallowed for offside, but two crazy minutes later found ourselves ahead! Firstly: a through ball from Howard Gayle picked out Gary Bennett, who was upended by Bailey as he surged into the box. Clive Walker hammered home the resulting penalty, beating the keeper to his left before, almost immediately, Walker completed his hat-trick - again from the spot. This time Gordon McQueen was guilty of a foul on Stan Cummins inside the area and Walker again beat Bailey at the same side in spite of another brave attempt to save by the United ‘keeper.
Standing at 3-2 at half-time, it had been quite a remarkable first forty-minutes - recovering from 0-2 down, a hat-trick, and two sending’s-off.
What would the second period have in store after all the excitement of the first? Well it didn’t quite reach the same levels of excitement of the first period, though both sides still had their chances and Bailey saved well from attempts by both Cummins and West. At the other end, Chris Turner had to pull off a smart stop to deny Strachan, Robson missed a good chance, while Remi Moses and Whiteside both came a bit too close for comfort near the end.
We hung on to record a rather famous win although, sadly, this was really as good as it got that season; seven of the next eight league games were lost, including an inglorious 0-4 home beating to Leicester in the following home game, and a 1-3 defeat at Sid James on New Year’s Day, as we plunged from the comfort of mid-table into the relegation battle, never to recover.
Our FA Cup hopes for 1984-85 ended before they’d even started with another 0-4 beating, this time at Southampton in Round Three. ‘The Saints’ were of course still managed by you-know-who at the time, so this result was perhaps somewhat ironic.
Or a sign of what was to come!
We did of course go on to reach the Milk Cup Final the following March but any hopes of glory were dashed by Norwich’s 1-0 win in a rather lacklustre affair at Wembley, which also seemed to accelerate our somewhat inevitable drop back to the wilderness of the Second Division.
Still, I guess the win against Manchester United - one of few real highlights in 1984-85 - was good while it lasted, and I (and no doubt many others) hope that its not too long before we cross paths with United and the like again. In season 2020-21 perhaps?
Thanks for your submission Andrew! Sounds like one to remember. Here’s hoping, eh?