Following the euphoria of our 1975-76 Division Two promotion/championship campaign, most of us connected with Sunderland AFC perhaps hoped that a bright new horizon lay ahead, and that the all-too-familiar struggles associated with the club were now well and truly a thing of the past.
Sadly, our optimism once again turned to despair, for our Division One campaign of 1976-77 was largely a season of struggle, when adjustment to the demands of England’s top flight once more proved to be a bridge too far.
Thus by early February 1977, our position was looking rather hopeless; we were stuck at the foot of Division One after having endured a terrible run of eleven winless League games, which had included nine straight defeats, and just a solitary goal to show for our efforts.
To add insult to injury, we’d suffered a rather inglorious FA Cup third round exit at the hands of Wrexham of Division Three. Certainly the stats suggested we were a team destined for the drop, and indeed, it seemed only a matter of time before the Rokermen’s fate was rubber-stamped.
However, just when all seemed lost, there came a turning point, due in no small part to the introduction of youngsters Kevin Arnott, Shaun Elliott & Gary Rowell.
We faced fellow strugglers Bristol City at Roker Park on Friday, 11th February - the staging of the game went against tradition somewhat, though it had been brought forward to avoid a clash with the Tyne/Tees “derby”, which was being staged at St. James Park on the following Saturday.
A second-half Mel Holden goal was enough to give us only our second home League win (third in all), and while we remained marooned at the bottom of Division One, the win was to “open the floodgates“, at least in terms of our goalscoring output.
Our next game, also at Roker, was against Jack Charlton’s high-flying Middlesbrough where a Sunderland victory seemed very unlikely. But Jimmy Adamson’s side turned the form book upside down, and Boro were dispatched back down the A19 on the wrong end of 0-4 beating, Mel Holden having again got on the scoresheet in addition to efforts from Kevin Arnott, Bob Lee & Gary Rowell.
Thus we’d recorded our best winning run so far in 76-77, with five goals scored and none against; however, the best was still to come.
Three days after the Boro win, on Tuesday 22nd February, we met WBA, who included in their side a young Bryan Robson - later to play for both Manchester United & England - in a re-arranged home game.
In spite of the awful conditions, a crowd of just over 30,000 turned up, no doubt hopeful of seeing a third straight home win - they weren’t to be disappointed for Sunderland turned on a treat for their fans battering The Baggies 6-1.
Thanks mainly to a Bob Lee hat-trick and other efforts from Shaun Elliott, Mel Holden & Gary Rowell, Sunderland ensured their fans left Roker Park with grins plastered across their faces. Quite unbelievable stuff from a side that had found goals difficult to come by previously; this latest win set us up nicely for the next game, also at Roker, a vital relegation six-pointer against West Ham.
A crowd of 35,357 were present for the visit of The Hammers, whose side featured the other Bryan Robson, he who’d had three spells at Sunderland, as well as (dare I say it) having appeared for our dear rivals from up the road.
And the lads, no doubt boosted by their three previous results, were soon on the offensive, taking just three minutes to break the deadlock when Gary Rowell, having won the ball out on the left, crossed for Mel Holden to beat keeper Mervyn Day from close range.
Then just six minutes later it was 2-0, when Bobby Kerr and Kevin Arnott combined well to set up Gary Rowell, whose shot found the back of the net, in spite of Billy Bonds desperate attempt to clear.
Sunderland were playing with such confidence that one could be forgiven for thinking that they were striving to become Division One champions, as opposed to trying to avoid the drop.
Indeed, West Ham just weren’t at the races, and it came as no surprise when they fell further behind after on the half-hour mark, for when Mervyn Day could only fist out a corner from Bobby Kerr, Colin Waldron returned the ball into the middle and found Mel Holden, who headed home his second of the match, in spite of the keeper’s frantic efforts to keep the ball out.
3-0 then at the break, and if West Ham had had any thoughts about a second-half revival, then Sunderland had other ideas, particularly as they would have the advantage of the wind.
Mel Holden almost notched his hat-trick, but his rather cheeky flick travelled just the wrong side of the post. Then on fifty-three minutes we did make it 4-0 when Bobby Kerr intercepted a careless pass by Kevin Lock and gleefully rammed the ball home. Then. just eleven minutes later, it was 5-0 after a throw-in by Joe Bolton was played back to him by Bob Lee, the ball eventually broke for Gary Rowell to notch his second goal of the game, when his fierce drive flashed between the beleaguered Mervyn Day and his near post.
The one-way traffic continued, and West Ham’s misery was compounded five minutes from time, when Mick Docherty picked out Bob Lee, who sprung the visitors offside trap and calmly chipped the advancing Day, to round off a great afternoon’s work.
So, Sunderland had made it four wins out of four, with seventeen goals scored (which more than quadrupled our previous “goals for” at home tally), and just one against - surely championship form!
We remained very much involved in the relegation scrap in spite of this tremendous run of results, but our mini-revival suggested that we were not about to give up our Division One place without a good fight.
Sadly, survival was wasn’t to be, though we did take our fate “to the wire” as it were, as we finally succumbed on the fateful night of 19th May 1977 with defeat to Everton at Goodison Park confirming our relegation.
Coventry and Bristol City’s rather controversial draw at Highfield Road was the final nail in the coffin. Still, our gallant “comeback from the dead”, which came so close to the Lads preserving our top-flight status, must have led our fans to wonder what might have been, had we discovered our “championship form” a little sooner in the season.