After the heartbreak of relegation from the First Division at the end of season 1976-77, most of us no doubt hoped that the 1977-78 campaign would see us make a challenge for an instant return to the top flight.
Alas, this was not to be. Hindered by a poor start to season 77-78, we failed to find consistent winning form and thus were never able to make a serious challenge for one of the top three places in the Second Division.
All then a bit of a contrast to the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspur, who like ourselves had been demoted at the conclusion of the 76-77 campaign but who had subsequently made a determined bid to regain their First Division status, and as such had been amongst the Second Division front runners all season when they’d occupied a top-three spot for most part.
Having seemed more or less assured of an instant return upstairs towards the end of March, Spurs had since wobbled slightly. Thus our meeting at White Hart Lane on the penultimate Saturday of the 77-78 campaign, while rather insignificant as far as we were concerned save maybe for pride, took on huge importance for the home side.
Securing two points were of paramount importance if promotion was to become a reality for Keith Burkinshaw’s men - while there was also a touch of novelty to the fixture as it was the first time that White Hart Lane has staged a second-tier meeting between Spurs and ourselves.
On an overcast afternoon in North London in front of a crowd of nearly 40,000 we got the game underway. Spurs immediately gained possession and went straight up our end to take a sensational twenty-five second lead. Terry Naylor floated over a great cross which was touched on by John Duncan to Peter Taylor, who left Barry Siddall helpless from close range.
An early setback then. We responded positively, and both Gary Rowell and Bobby Kerr had shots charged down before a header from Mick Docherty travelled over the top.
Then, after a left-wing corner had only been half-cleared by the Spurs defence, a low, hard shot from Jeff Clarke was cleared from just short of the goal line by Gerry Armstrong. Our pressure gained reward just after the quarter-hour mark, though there was an element of luck to our equaliser; Mick Docherty and Bobby Kerr combined well before the former’s cross picked out Roly Gregoire, who failed to control the ball but then recovered to play the ball onto Gary Rowell, who headed the ball on - though there was no other Sunderland on player to take advantage.
Thus there appeared to be no danger to the home side, but Gerry Armstrong failed to bring the ball under control and Rowell took full advantage when he pounced to ram the loose ball home.
John Duncan was narrowly off-target with a header as Spurs sought an immediate response, then when we gained a free-kick it took the combined efforts of Neil McNab and Steve Perryman to stop Bobby Kerr from getting in a dangerous cross.
Jackie Ashurst then headed wide following another free-kick - this time from Joe Bolton - and it took a determined tackle from Naylor to foil Wilf Rostron, who’d created a shooting chance for himself on the edge of the penalty area.
It had been an encouraging display by us so far but Spurs were by no means out of it, as was proven when they gained two dangerous free-kicks in quick succession. From the second of these, Glenn Hoddle chipped the ball over the Sunderland wall but, fortunately for us, over the bar also. We then had a lucky escape when an attempted clearance from Bobby Kerr struck Jeff Clarke and fell nicely to Peter Taylor, who let fly with a great shot which had Barry Siddall well beaten but thankfully came back into play off a post.
Barry Daines then saved well as Bob Lee threatened, but that was to be the last real goalmouth action of the half, which ended 1-1.
The early part of the second-half was fairly even, but just after the hour mark we stunned the White Hart Lane faithful by taking the lead. Wilf Rostron sent Mick Docherty away on the right and his perfectly-measured cross was met at the far post by Bob Lee, who sent in a great header which was parried by Daines, but the ball still travelled on into the net.
Chris Jones then headed over from a good position after being set up by Glenn Hoddle, then when play switched to the other end Daines did well to collect a Bobby Kerr centre, with Bob Lee in close attendance. Hoddle then set up the chance for Duncan, whose header was narrowly wide before Barry Siddall did well to hold onto a free-kick from Jim Holmes when under pressure from both Duncan and Hoddle.
After sixty-nine minutes, Spurs’ promotion hopes received a severe setback when we went 3-1 up, much to the shock of the home fans and players alike. A sweeping move saw Bobby Kerr receive the ball on the right, and his centre found Bob Lee, who notched his second goal of the game with a great shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Bobby Kerr then nearly made it 4-1 shortly afterwards, but with only Daines to beat he shot wide. Jackie Ashurst and Mick Henderson then both ended up in the referee’s notebook as Spurs desperately tried to retrieve the game, and indeed their hopes of an immediate return to the First Division.
We were still far from finished. Gary Rowell missed a great chance to add to our goal tally and put the result beyond doubt. But the home side’s pressure paid off eight minutes from time when John Duncan, who’d scored both goals in Spurs’ 2-1 win at Roker Park earlier in the season, headed home a cross from Neil McNab to set up a rousing finish.
Despite living dangerously occasionally in the closing stages of the game we held out for a rather memorable victory, very much against the odds in some folks eyes.
Spurs did recover from this setback to go on and gain promotion, albeit in third place, and purely on goal difference over Brighton.
As for us, our White Hart Lane success moved us up one place to sixth, which was to be our final finishing position after we’d beaten another London side, Charlton, 3-0 in our final game at Roker.
Perhaps sixth place was a fair reflection of our season overall, but the win over Spurs had certainly been no fluke, and had no doubt left us wondering how the 1977-78 campaign may have otherwise turned out had we been able to produce this type of performance/result on a more consistent basis throughout the season.
But as fate would have it, it wouldn’t be too long before we emulated Spurs in returning to the First Division, what was surely the rightful place for both ourselves and the London side.