After we’d missed out on promotion to the First Division by the narrowest of margins in season 1974-75, the early indications in the 1975-76 campaign were that we were about to make up for the disappointment, and as the season entered the autumn period we found ourselves top of the Second Division and looking good for not only promotion but also the championship.
However, the strong run which had propelled us to the top was based on our impeccable home form, when we’d proceeded to win all of our first eight league games at Roker Park. Our away form in contrast had been rather poor; we’d won won one, drawn two and lost three of the first six games on the road.
Not really form associated with a side seeking promotion but we had the perfect chance to at least partly correct this trend when we visited struggling York City at the beginning of November, in what was effectively a derby clash of sorts.
The Minstermen had endured a pretty poor season to date overall in the league and had lost four games on the bounce prior to our visit to Bootham Crescent, having also conceded seven goals in their two previous home fixtures.
So it was perhaps no surprise that they propped up the Second Division table, looking even at this stage candidates for certain relegation. So the fixture maybe took on a David and Goliath type billing and on Saturday 1st November, all roads from Wearside led to the historic city of York, which experienced a red and white invasion estimated at 10-12,000 people.
This easily outnumbered the home support, helping to give City what would turn out to be their best home gate of the season - just over 15,000 - which was at least three times their normal home average, while our travelling contingent also turned what was officially an away fixture for us more or less into a home game.
Our side showed just one change to that which had beaten Luton at Roker Park the previous Saturday when Jackie Ashurst, who’d come in for the injured Joe Bolton versus The Hatters, received a knock in training during midweek and was replaced by Mick Henderson, who was making his debut.
York won the toss, and we kicked off in pouring rain but were soon on the offensive. Our first real chance fell to Bobby Kerr, who’d been picked out by a cross from Ian Porterfield, but unfortunately his first-time effort was well over.
Billy Hughes then had a header scrambled away, while Tony Towers was off-target with a free-kick. Undeterred, we kept up the pressure and were duly rewarded in the twentieth minute: Towers and Kerr combined well on the left and the latter’s cross picked out Billy Hughes, who beat ‘keeper Graeme Crawford from close range. Funnily enough, this was the first goal scored for us in an away game so far in 75-76 by a forward!
Crawford then did well to turn a ‘Pop’ Robson header over the bar following good work between Kerr and Dick Malone as we maintained the pressure. Even at this stage of proceedings it seemed like a case of boys against men, as there appeared to be an air of desperation about City’s play - perhaps not surprising in view of their plight at the foot of the Second Division.
This desperation seemed to manifest itself when the home side gifted us a second goal on the half-hour mark when Billy Hughes had the home defence in a tangle with his pace, and as he received a pass from Vic Halom he played a teasing centre into the home penalty area only for defender Gordon Hunter, attempting to clear, turning the ball into his own net.
‘Pop’ Robson had just failed to meet a centre by Hughes when it looked as if we’d scored a third, courtesy of another own-goal, when Vic Halom and defender Chris Topping clashed, the ball appearing to go off the York man and over Crawford into the net. However, Halom was adjudged to have fouled Topping and the home side gained a free-kick.
But we were soon back on the offensive, and not too surprisingly went 3-0 ahead six minutes before the break, courtesy of another gift by the overworked York defence. Bobby Kerr and City defender Derrick Downing tangled at the angle of the penalty area and when the York man slipped, he handled in trying to keep control of he ball, leaving the referee with no option but to award a spot-kick. Tony Towers duly obliged, giving Crawford no chance with his well-placed kick.
Vic Halom then had shot blocked out for a corner, but before the kick was taken play was briefly held up while the referee spoke to York club officials about the behaviour of some of the Sunderland fans behind the home goal, who’d apparently decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes a few days early by throwing fireworks onto the pitch. As if their side had not provided enough entertainment already!
Halom and Towers then came close to increasing our advantage, but 3-0 it was at the break, modest reward in view of the battering we’d subjected the home side to in the first period, and doubtless York were relieved not to be further in arrears as they had in effect offered merely token resistance.
However, it was the home side who were first to show up in the second period, and in their first meaningful attack Jimmy Seal was just off target with a header, then Chris Jones shot narrowly wide. But normal service was soon resumed and York had two narrow escapes, firstly when a Billy Hughes effort was blocked just short of the line, then Bobby Kerr’s follow-up attempt was desperately scooped away by Graeme Crawford.
The inevitable fourth goal arrived just short of the hour mark, though again we needed a helping hand. Bobby Kerr played a short corner to Dick Malone and when his cross reached the centre both Robson and Towers had shots charged down. It was ruled that York full-back Peter Oliver had handled to prevent one of these crossing the line, resulting in our second penalty of the game. Once again Tony Towers duly obliged, 4-0, and game over.
Up until this point Jim Montgomery had been a virtual spectator, though he had no real problems with what was in effect his only piece of meaningful action when he dealt comfortably with a long-range effort from John Woodward. In the sixty-ninth minute though the ‘keeper was helpless, when Jones hit a speculative effort from just outside the box which took a wicked deflection to leave Monty helpless, though it proved to be no more than a consolation effort for beleaguered City.
So 4-1 then at full-time, and while we’d needed a helping hand with three of our goals, the scoreline still didn’t accurately reflect our overall dominance of the game. Still, we moved two points clear at the top of the Second Division, and as for poor York, no doubt they were glad not to have been on the end of an even bigger hiding as they remained rooted to the bottom and seemingly facing a battle for survival.
However, and not too surprisingly, ourselves and York would eventually go in opposite directions at the end of the 1975-76 campaign, as we of course went up as champions, while the Minstermen were relegated to Division Three after just seasons in the Second.
The return fixture at Roker Park at the end of March was quite a different kettle of fish compared to the ease with which we’d triumphed at Bootham Crescent, for even though we completed ‘the double’, York, despite being almost doomed to the drop, still played out of their skins as if they themselves were going for promotion.
Thanks to an inspired display by Jim Montgomery (which included a first-half penalty save from City’s Ian Holmes), and a first-half goal from Bobby Kerr, we achieved a narrow but still welcome 1-0 win as we edged towards the First Division. It is claimed that Bob Stokoe had said it was the luckiest win we’d achieved since he arrived at the club in 1972, but lucky or not, they all count, particularly when a side is going for promotion/the championship.