After having failed by the narrowest of margins to achieve promotion in 1978-79, there was to be no mistake in the 1979-80 season, when we ended our three-year exile in the Second Division.
However, our form during the first half of the 79-80 campaign had tended to be a little inconsistent at times, not helped by a rather poor away record, which was in direct contrast to more or less impeccable form at Roker Park.
Indeed, our first success “on the road” was not achieved until just after Christmas, when we triumphed 1-0 at struggling Fulham, and while we began 1980 in the worst possible fashion by losing 1-3 at Sid James on New Year’s Day, the defeat against The Old Foe proved to be a bit of a turning point of sorts, for we would subsequently suffer just one defeat our remaining eighteen league games, a record that would help us to reclaim our place amongst England’s elite.
However, as has so often been the case, our fate would go right the to wire. At the start of play on the last official day of the season we stood third in the Second Division, on goal difference over Chelsea, one point behind second-placed Birmingham and two behind leaders Leicester, though we held a game in hand over all these three clubs.
The scenario was as follows: if we won our final away game at Cardiff we’d have been assured of promotion, while victory in our game in hand against FA Cup Finalists West Ham would see us go up as Champions.
As events turned out, we were held 1-1 at Ninian Park, which enabled Chelsea, at least perhaps temporarily, to reclaim third spot after they won their final game v Oldham. So it all hinged on our re-arranged final home game against West Ham, who by the time they visited Roker Park had been crowned FA Cup winners, following victory against London rivals Arsenal at Wembley two days previous.
While our hopes of the Second Division Championship had now gone, a point from The Hammers would be enough to see us up - as it transpired, we’d achieve our objective in the best possible way.
So an expectant crowd of just over 47,000 - our biggest home league gate since that for the vital promotion clash against Bolton four years earlier - were packed into Roker Park, hoping to will their side onto the promised land of the First Division.
But in an electric atmosphere it was West Ham, playing towards the Roker End in the first-half, who appeared the more composed side earlier on, inspired in particular by both Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire. Chris Turner’s first real save of note came when he palmed away a header from David Cross, however, our young ‘keeper was then almost embarrassed by a shot from the same player, which he rather inexplicably allowed to roll under his body, though thankfully the ball also travelled narrowly wide of the upright.
We gradually began to settle to our task, and West Ham ‘keeper Phil Parkes was called upon to make two great saves to deny Shaun Elliott and “Pop” Robson. Then when play switched to the other end, David Cross provided another scare when he shot just past the post after having appeared a certain scorer.
But shortly after this latest let-off, we forced the vital breakthrough. Phil Parkes did well to block an effort from Shaun Elliott, though when the keeper could only parry “Pop” Robson’s follow-up effort, Kevin Arnott was on hand to sweep the loose ball home and send Roker Park into ecstasy.
Having relieved the tension somewhat, we now began to play some rather purposeful football, though we received another scare in the fifty-fifth minute when Ray Stewart was just off-target with a powerful drive, but then we had a great chance to double our advantage when Joe Hinnigan put in a low centre which just eluded Kevin Arnott and Stan Cummins.
Hinnigan himself then missed a great chance to increase the lead in the sixty-fifth minute, when he mis-kicked in front of goal, after being set up by some good work from Kevin Arnott and Mick Buckley. We’d certainly appeared to have increased the tempo as we sought to make the game safe, and Phil Parkes had to make a fine save to deny Stan Cummins, but the diminutive striker was not to be denied, and he did make the game safe with a second goal.
And what a goal it was too, for Cummins proved just what a sound buy he’d been from our Teesside rivals Middlesbrough the previous November when he waltzed past three West Ham defenders as if they didn’t really exist, before leaving Parkes helpless with a well-placed shot. The party could just about begin.
That second killer goal concluded the scoring, though we could have added a third to our tally when Shaun Elliott was close with a fierce drive, and when the same player had another powerful effort well saved by Parkes.
Mission accomplished then, and the referee’s full-time whistle prompted uninhibited scenes of jubilation amongst fans and players alike, on what had been a truly memorable occasion for Sunderland AFC. And the result had not only secured us promotion as runners-up to Champions Leicester, but it also meant that we’d gone through season 1979-80 unbeaten in the league at home, and instead of visits to Cambridge, Orient and Shrewsbury (no disrespect intended to those clubs of course), we could now look forward to trips to Aston Villa, Manchester United, Spurs and the like in season 1980-81.
But at the same time, it was no doubt also hoped that our latest experience of England’s top flight would be longer and more productive than our previous all-too-brief stint, and that relegation battles would be a thing of the past.