The first half of the 1982-83 season had a bit of an old, all-too-familiar look to it. For after a reasonably promising opening, when we’d got off to the perfect start with a 3-1 win at European Champions Aston Villa on the opening day, followed at Roker by a draw with Notts County and a narrow 1-0 victory against West Ham, things started to go wrong. All of the next four league games were lost, including a rather embarrassing 0-8 reverse to First Division “new boys” Watford, which equalled our worst-ever record league defeat. While we appeared to have turned the corner with a 4-1 home win v Norwich in the next game, this merely proved to false optimism for the following ten league games failed to produce so much as a single victory. By mid-December we were stuck at the foot of the First Division table, six points from safety and seemingly staring a return to the Second Division in the face.
Thus I was not too optimistic when we went into our final league game before Christmas, against Arsenal at Roker Park, even though The Gunners by their own high standards had endured a somewhat up-and-down season to date and were languishing in the lower half of the First Division table prior to their visit to the North East. In fact, the game was notable to me for four reasons: a freezing-cold day just before Christmas 1982; Arsenal’s rather awful dark blue/green away kit; an attendance of just under 12,000 (maybe not a surprise in view of our poor form). But perhaps most notably: Gary Rowell’s hat-trick.
Yes, “Lord Rowell” was to come up trumps yet again, to provide not only a bit of festive cheer but also some hope that we’d pull clear of the relegation zone. Perhaps not too surprisingly the rather bone-hard pitch was to make playing conditions tricky, but we soon got to grips and, after Gary Rowell had tested Arsenal’s veteran keeper Pat Jennings with a firm header, our goalscoring hero had more luck in the eighth minute when he beat Jennings with a well-placed shot, having been set up by Barry Venison.
Venison himself then forced a near-post save from Jennings, before Stan Cummins missed a great chance to increase our advantage. For when a cross from Jimmy Nicholl had been knocked down by our new arrival Frank Worthington into the path of the pint-sized forward who was perfectly placed just outside the six-yard box, he snatched at the ball, sending it high into the Roker End.
So 1-0 then at the break, and a nice hot cup of Bovril was more than welcome on this particular occasion! We continued to take the game to the visitors on the resumption and Nick Pickering almost added to our lead when, following a cross from Nicholl, the youngster sent in a fierce shot which just cleared the far post. Another great chance then followed when a great ball from Worthington sent Shaun Elliott away on a run into the Arsenal box, but instead of going for goal he hesitated, eventually playing the ball to Gary Rowell, whose mishit shot travelled harmlessly wide.
Pickering then struck the upright with a fine effort as we continued to attack at every opportunity, but it just seemed as though a second goal just would not come. However, just after the hour mark we did edge further ahead, courtesy of a comedy of errors in the Arsenal defence. Firstly Brian Talbot’s attempted back-heeled clearance was collected by Pickering, who crossed into the box and Chris Whyte, in attempting to head clear, only succeeded in presenting the ball straight to the lurking Rowell, who gleefully accepted what appeared an early Christmas present. Alan Sunderland was then lucky to remain on the pitch after having aimed a rather wild kick at Iain Munro. The Arsenal man only received a booking for his trouble, when in all truth the offence warranted an early bath.
But then thirteen minutes from time we put the result beyond doubt when more fine work from Nick Pickering set up the chance for man-of-the-match Gary Rowell to complete only his second-ever hat-trick for Sunderland (his other of course having come rather famously at Sid James a few seasons previous). So 3-0 then, our first league win for almost three months and one which was more then welcome as it helped lift us up two places off the bottom of the table, albeit purely on goal difference from fellow strugglers Birmingham and Norwich. The result was also a great early Christmas present for club and fans alike, and the perfect boost ahead of a daunting festive double-header v title favourites Manchester United and Liverpool.
However, a tremendous battling performance at Old Trafford two days after Christmas in which keeper Chris Turner not for the first (or last) time played a starring role, saw us gain a precious, if somewhat unlikely point from a 0-0 draw. The following day it was a similar tale at Roker when reigning champions Liverpool were also held to a goalless stalemate - Chris Turner again turning in a heroic performance. So five points from a possible nine gained from three of the First Division’s “elite”, together with a bonus of three clean sheets in a row. Quite a commendable feat in the circumstances, which maybe showed that there was life in us after all and that we were not prepared to give up our place in the top flight without a good scrap as we entered 1983 and the second half of the league programme.