January of 1983 had been a bit of an up-and-down month for Sunderland AFC. It had began with a Nottingham double header, when we’d forced a 0-0 draw at Forest and followed this up with a 1-0 win at Forest’s local rivals Notts County two days later.
We’d also managed to force a battling 1-1 draw at Spurs, though we’d suffered what had now become our customary early FA Cup exit, losing a third round replay to Manchester City by 1-2 at Maine Road following a 0-0 stalemate at Roker.
Perhaps rather unusually, we only had one home league game in January - the return fixture with reigning European Champions Aston Villa - which on paper at least was a bit of a daunting prospect. However, we went into the game with the knowledge that we’d beaten Villa 3-1 at Villa Park on the season’s opening day, while we also had the boost of a five-game unbeaten league sequence.
Though perhaps more crucially our ranks had been bolstered by the signing of Welsh international Leighton James from Swansea a couple of days previous, and while his shooting proved to be a bit off-the-mark on his debut against The Villains, his overall performance tended to give hope that he may just play a vital part in our survival bid.
But it was Villa, despite facing a strong breeze, who showed the early attacking intent, and Gordon Chisholm had to be alert to head clear a cross from Gary Williams which looked like picking out England and ex-Newcastle forward Peter Withe.
Villa’s promising young forward Mark Walters then shot weakly into the arms of Chris Turner from a good position before England midfielder Gordon Cowans had a free-kick blocked by Barry Venison.
However, we gradually began to force some openings of our own, with new man Leighton James very much involved. James and Nick Pickering combined to cause some unrest in the Villa defence, then Stan Cummins just failed to reach a knock-on from Pickering.
Then when play switched to the other end, Chris Turner excelled himself when he turned a fierce free-kick from England winger Tony Morley over the bar.
Leighton James was narrowly off-target with a twenty-yard effort, but just short of the half-hour mark we forged ahead, although we needed a touch of good fortune.
James was fouled by Villa defender Allan Evans just outside the area, and the Welshman’s free-kick into the box struck an unsuspecting Ken McNaught and rebounded past a bewildered Nigel Spink into the visitors goal.
Lucky maybe but they all count and, boosted by this breakthrough, we pressed forward with some determination.
James was narrowly off-target twice from good positions, while a Frank Worthington header forced a great save from Spink. But Villa were by no means out of it and Dennis Mortimer was not too far away with a long-range effort, though we continued to call the tune.
Colin West headed wide from a good position, then right on half-time Spink beat away a fierce drive from Cummins.
So 1-0 then at the break and I felt we had reason to be pleased with our first-half performance, even though it had taken a touch of the bizarre to turn the game in our favour. What then would the second period have in store?
Well, after Chris Turner had saved well following a Villa free-kick shortly after the resumption we gave ourselves a bit of breathing space with a second goal in the forty-eighth minute. And while our first had been a fluke, there was no doubt about this one; a long clearance from Turner was touched on by West to find Frank Worthington, who went on to beat Spink with a crisp, low drive.
2-0 then, and game over?
Not quite, for a side of Aston Villa’s calibre were never going to just roll over and die, and to their credit The Midlanders fought back strongly in a bid to retrieve the game.
Chris Turner - for me at least our man of the match - was forced to make some crucial saves, particularly from Peter Withe and and Mark Walters, to not just preserve a potential clean sheet but also more importantly to set us on the way to three valuable points. But we were far from finished as an attacking force, for Pickering forced a fine save from Spink, James shot into the side netting, then Ally McCoist came close with a dipping, swerving effort which just cleared the upright with Spink beaten.
All-in-all then, a sound afternoon’s work, while I felt it had been pretty good entertainment for the crowd of just over 16,000 who braved the cold, wintry conditions.
The outcome was three-fold: not only did we complete a very welcome “double” over our illustrious visitors, but we also extended our unbeaten league run to six games and chalked up another clean sheet into the bargain. But more significantly, this rather priceless win moved us out of the bottom three in the First Division for the first time since October, and while there was still a lot of work to be done in order to preserve our First Division status, the win against Villa again showed that we could, on our day, rise to the occasion and live with the very best in the land.
Our only other “double” success in 1982-83 came against Arsenal, and in fact our 1-0 win at Highbury on the penultimate Saturday of the season guaranteed our survival and we eventually finished in sixteenth place - certainly an improvement on the previous two campaigns.