The first half of the 1971-72 season had been quite encouraging from a Sunderland perspective, for after an indifferent start our subsequent form - which had been fairly solid if unspectacular - had still been enough to keep us amongst the pack of clubs with promotion ambitions. However, consistent winning home form is always a prerequisite for any club with genuine promotion aspirations, and as such our own during the first few months of the 71-72 campaign had perhaps been found wanting, for the first ten league games at Roker had produced a mere four victories.
Indeed, we went almost two months without a win in our own back yard, though when this barren run was finally ended with a 2-1 victory against Fulham in the early part of December, this welcome (and overdue) win pushed us up to fifth place, and set the scene nicely for the next game, also at Roker: an attractive fixture against Millwall, who were seeking a place in the First Division for the first time in their history. The Lions had been amongst the front-runners for most of the season, though having taken a point in a 1-1 draw at The Den back in September, we were no doubt hoping to go one better this time round. Our side showed just one to change from that which had beaten Fulham, when Richie Pitt returned in place of Mick McGiven.
Attacking the Fulwell End in the first-half, we made a positive start and Brian Chambers struck the woodwork with a fierce effort, then an effort from Billy Hughes scraped the crossbar on it’s way over the top. Undeterred, we kept up the pressure and were rewarded after twenty-five minutes - a long throw-in from Bobby Kerr picked out Dave Watson, whose back-header had Millwall keeper Brian King in difficulties as he could only push the ball against the bar, and when it dropped it fell nicely for Richie Pitt to drive home.
But the visitors responded strongly, and Derek Forster - in for the injured Jim Montgomery - had to pull off a great save to deny Barry Bridges. When play switched to the other end, Billy Hughes came close to making it 2-0. We then had further chances to add to our lead, but an entertaining first period ended with us still a goal to the good.
We then began the second-half on the offensive and were rewarded with a second goal in the forty-ninth minute and, in common with our first goal, Bobby Kerr was the instigator. Another throw-in from the diminutive Scotsman was forced away from Dave Watson by the combined efforts of Bryan King & Barry Kitchener, but the ball fell kindly for Kerr, who lobbed the ball back into the middle for his fellow Scot Billy Hughes to head home in spite of the frantic efforts of King to keep the ball out.
However, in spite of this further setback, the visitors were not prepared to lie down and die, and they proceeded to subject us to a fair degree of pressure. This was rewarded in the fifty-second minute, albeit in somewhat controversial fashion, when Derek Possee appeared to have dived as Richie Pitt played the ball back to Forster. But from the indirect free-kick, and in spite of us having pulled every single man back, Gordon Bolland still managed to slam a fierce shot over our defensive wall and into the top corner of the net.
Possee then nearly equalised with a rather spectacular overhead kick, but twelve minutes from time we appeared to have put the game to bed when Dennis Tueart and Brian Chambers combined well to set Billy Hughes away, and the latter’s cross was forced home by Bobby Kerr.
Game over? Unfortunately Millwall had other ideas, although not without a helping hand of sorts. For in the eighty-fifth minute, The Lions reduced the deficit once more, though as had been the case with their first goal, there was again a fair amount of controversy involved. Derek Forster appeared to be fouled when he went to claim a Millwall corner, though the referee allowed play to continue, and Derek Smethrust was able to take advantage of this rather fortuitous decision when he forced the ball home to make it 3-2. Game on.
And The Lions no doubt now sensed they could get something from the game, and they weren’t to be disappointed, for just sixty seconds hence they levelled matters up, though the visitors did in all truth profit from an act of charity on the part of our defence. Following a left-wing corner, Derek Possee was left more or less completely unmarked in front of goal and he left Derek Forster helpless with a powerful header.
So the match finished with honours even at 3-3, and it had been an entertaining afternoon for the crowd of 16,484. However, most of them had no doubt been left disappointed at their side having let a point slip, after having been in a commanding position not once, but twice. Of course, not the first time this has happened, or indeed the last!
So we were left reflecting upon a sixth home draw of the campaign, however, we’d soon make up for this lost point by taking a maximum haul of four points from our Festive/New Year games against Hull & Sheffield Wednesday, to thus push ourselves back into the thick of the promotion mix. But while we remained in contention up until the end of March, we then appeared to run of steam in the final run-in and had to settle for fifth place, which left us perhaps wondering what might have been had the Millwall game, and indeed a few other drawn fixtures at Roker in the 1971-72 campaign, been turned into wins.