After season 1982-83 had seen yet another battle for First Division survival, albeit successful, most of us long-suffering Sunderland fans perhaps hoped that season 1983-84, might, just might, have better things in store for us.
Alas, it was not to be. In fact it was very much a case of more of the same, and generally poor league form led to the sacking of manager Alan Durban in early March after a run of seven winless league games left the club staring a return to the Second Division in the face.
Bryan “Pop” Robson had a very brief spell as caretaker manager before former Roker stalwart Len Ashurst returned to his old club as the new permanent appointment, and while there was an improvement of sorts under Ashurst, we still ended up facing a rather familiar scenario come our final game at Leicester.
This was mainly due to us having failed to beat fellow strugglers Notts County in our final home game five days previous, when a win would have guaranteed our place in the First Division, at least for one more season. As it happened, the 0-0 draw confirmed the visitors somewhat inevitable fate but also meant that we, along with Birmingham, Coventry, Stoke and West Bromwich Albion would now have to battle it out to avoid joining Notts County and Wolves in the Second Division. A draw for us at Filbert Street might have sufficed, but really a win was the order of the day to make absolutely certain/to allow margin for error.
So we kicked off attacking the end where a large contingent of our fans had gathered, and after a couple of initial promising moves had broken down our first real chance came after we forced the first corner of the game. Mark Proctor’s outswinger eluded Gordon Chisholm but was picked up by Paul Bracewell, who, perhaps affected by the tension of the occasion, sent his drive from twenty-five yards over the top.
Undeterred, we continued to press and were rewarded in the eighth minute. A long clearance from Chris Turner was headed on by Colin West to set Lee Chapman away, and the ex-Arsenal man went on to confidently beat City keeper Ian Andrews, much to the delight of his team-mates and the travelling supporters.
Leicester then responded with two free-kicks in quick succession, and following the first, Bobby Smith had a fierce drive charged down, then the second led to Gordon Chisholm conceding a corner, from which Paul Ramsay headed straight at Chris Turner.
Then in our next attack we could easily have added a second goal when we gained a free-kick on the halfway line, and when Shaun Elliott’s ball into the middle was headed out by David Rennie only as far as Nick Pickering, the youngster’s shot was blocked just short of the goal line.
Then when play switched to the other end, Chris Turner had to scramble frantically along his line to save a header from Paul Ramsay, following a corner from Gary Lineker.
Then in the twenty-fourth minute we nearly extended our lead, when Colin West headed down for Lee Chapman to try his luck from twenty-five yards, but his effort dipped just over with Ian Andrew well beaten.
The home side then nearly gifted us a second goal, when Bobby Smith, under no pressure, tried to find Andrews with a badly directed back pass, which left the keeper scrambling to keep the ball out of the net.
We kept up the pressure and it looked like we’d forced a second goal; Barry Venison forced a right-wing corner, and Mark Proctor’s kick found the head of Lee Chapman, who knocked the ball down for Ian Atkins to drive the ball home. Unfortunately, our celebrations were cut short, as Atkins effort was disallowed, after he was ruled to have fouled David Rennie.
Gary Lineker then missed a good chance to equalise for Leicester, then in the forty-first minute we gave ourselves a bit of breathing space with a second goal, and it all stemmed from another corner.
This time Mark Proctor’s kick found Lee Chapman, whose goal-bound header was cleared from the line by Steve Lynex, and from the rebound Chapman flung himself forward to again head the ball goalwards, only to be denied by Lynex again. However, the ball only travelled as far as “Pop” Robson, who easily beat Andrews from eight yards.
2-0 then at the break, and we were now just forty-five or so minutes away from First Division safety. However, three minutes into the second period, Leicester nearly pulled a goal back when a cross from Smith picked out Rob Kelly, whose header was rather too close for comfort. Then shortly afterwards we continued to live dangerously when a long kick from Andrews was misjudged by Gordon Chisholm and Shaun Elliott, and it was left to Ian Atkins to relieve a potentially dangerous situation.
The home side continued to press, and just short of the hour mark, they missed a great chance to pull a goal back. A free-kick by Smith picked out Rennie in a great position just six yards out, but with only Chris Turner to beat, he shot hopelessly wide.
However, we were by no means finished as an attacking force, for when Barry Venison and “Pop” Robson combined to relieve a dangerous situation, the latter’s clearance fell to Paul Bracewell, who was left with a clear run on goal, but while his effort beat Ian Andrews, it also travelled a couple of yards wide of goal.
We then gained two corners in quick succession, one of which almost led to a third goal, but Ian Atkins just failed to apply the finishing touch from close range. Then it was Leicester’s turn to apply some pressure, and twice they nearly reduced the deficit.
First of all, Alan Smith shot just past Chris Turner’s right-hand post, wide, then a free-kick from Ian Wilson picked out David Rennie, whose header was narrowly off-target, as if to indicate that our mission for safety was still not quite complete.
Thankfully, we managed to successfully resist the home side’s further attempts to retrieve the game in the closing stages, and indeed we could have put the result beyond doubt near the end but Colin West overran the ball after having been played into a good position following some fine work by Lee Chapman and Nick Pickering.
So 2-0 it was at full-time, and mission accomplished.
Though as it transpired, and rather like our last-day win/survival mission at Anfield three years previous, the result turned out to be purely academic, for even if we had drawn or even lost at Filbert Street, we’d have still survived; while Coventry, Stoke and WBA were also victorious, Birmingham’s failure to beat Southampton at St. Andrews meant that The Blues accompanied Midlands rivals Notts County and Wolves into the Second Division.
Thus we survived with four points to spare and lived to fight another day in the First Division, although as fate would have it in a matter of months our luck was to finally run out - after the early promise of season 1984-85 when we’d held a comfortable mid-table position at one stage and also returned to Wembley after a twelve-year absence, our season disintegrated into a double disaster of relegation and Milk Cup Final defeat.
Guess it could only happen at Sunderland!