As the 1971-72 season reached it’s business end things appeared promising as far as Sunderland’s Second Division promotion bid was concerned.
Indeed, since the turn of the year we’d suffered just two defeats in ten league games, and while our FA Cup hopes had yet again evaporated rather prematurely (even though it took Cardiff three games to get past us in round four), our promotion hopes were looking good, as we stood fifth in the Second Division at the end of March and with games in hand over some of our promotion rivals.
However, our First Division ambitions received a setback when we proceeded to drop vital home points over the Easter period, and when we suffered a 1-3 loss at Bristol City in the middle of April, realistically, we now appeared to have no more than an outside chance of promotion.
Still, while a chink of light remained, we had to go for it and we had the perfect chance to return to winning ways when we hosted doomed bottom club Watford in a re-arranged clash, just two days after our defeat at Ashton Gate.
The Hornets, in contrast to ourselves, had experienced a torrid season and as such had never been out of the relegation zone. Indeed, they’d occupied bottom spot for several months and their somewhat inevitable fate had been sealed two weeks prior to their visit to Roker.
Manager Alan Brown made two changes to the side beaten at Bristol, when seventeen-year-old left-back Joe Bolton came in for his debut in place of Keith Coleman, while Brian Chambers replaced Ian Porterfield, who dropped to the subs bench.
Watford, with the pressure now off them, proceeded to play some good football. So much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that they themselves had promotion ambitions, instead of having to look forward to Third Division football the following campaign. Jim Montgomery was forced to make three great saves, most notably to deny Mike Kenning after a cross from John Farley had only been half-cleared.
In fact, we struggled to get into gear for the most part during the first-half, however, we received the boost of a goal five minutes before the break, even though this was somewhat against the run of play.
Watford’s Keith Eddy manhandled Dave Watson to the floor near the halfway line, and when Dick Malone drove the free-kick high into the Watford area, Watson out-jumped ‘keeper Andy Rankin with a tremendous leap to head into the empty net, to give us perhaps an undeserved, though still welcome lead. The floodgates had opened.
Boosted by this breakthrough, we continued to attack at every opportunity, and Rankin was forced to make great saves from Mick McGiven and John Lathan, but the Watford keeper’s best save of the night came when he palmed away a fierce effort from Dave Watson, who’d looked certain to double his tally.
The introduction of Ian Porterfield for Brian Chambers just after the hour mark gave us added momentum, as was proved when we on to put the game well out of Watford’s reach with a goal glut, inside a rather crazy fifteen-minute spell.
In the seventy-second minute, Mike Horswill was fouled by Watford substitute Ron Wigg, and when Ritchie Pitt had his free-kick returned to himself by the Watford defence the young defender played in Mick McGiven, who went on to beat Rankin with a well-placed shot. Then just four minutes later it was 3-0 and more or less game over, when a free-kick from Pitt was again headed out, this time only as far as Bobby Kerr, who promptly returned the ball into the danger zone to Ian Porterfield, who hammered home a great shot.
Ritchie Pitt himself got on the score sheet in the eighty-first minute when he headed home a centre from Mick McGiven, perhaps due reward after he’d played a part in our second and third goals. Then just six minutes later we completed a fine evening’s work with a fifth goal when Dick Malone stormed down the right wing before centring to the far post, where Dave Watson slammed home a close range shot.
5-0 then, and this eventually proved to be our best league win of the 1971-72 campaign. It’s just a pity that a paltry crowd of just 8,981 were present to witness the spectacle, which would turn out to be the lowest gate of the season at Roker.
But perhaps the stay-away fans knew what was to follow, for perhaps not too surprisingly we were soon brought back down to earth after the great win against Watford. Just five days hence, Queen’s Park Rangers, who still held a genuine chance of promotion, won 1-0 at Roker Park to not only snuff out our last lingering hope of reaching the First Division, but also to make it a disappointing end to our home league programme in 1971-72. If only we could have produced performances/results such as that against Watford on a more consistent basis over the course of the season!
However, we did end season 1971-72 on a high note of sorts when we took three points from our last two league games at Carlisle and Fulham, which meant a rather encouraging finish of fifth and the promise maybe of better things to come.
Though as fate would have it, it would take four more seasons, including one or two more near misses, but also a famous FA Cup win, before we returned to the promised land in 1975-76. And somewhat ironically, Watford’s next visit to Roker Park would come in another promotion campaign, that in season 1979-80. The result? Sunderland 5 Watford 0.
Who says that lightning doesn’t strike twice?