The return of First Division football in 1980-81, after a four-season absence, was hugely anticipated by all connected with Sunderland AFC. We started the new campaign in great style, with a 3-1 home win v Everton, followed by a 4-0 success at troubled Manchester City - the latter result putting us top of the First Division for the first time since the 1950s.
While we maintained our unbeaten away league record with a battling 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford, and a 1-0 win at one of our promotion counterparts of the previous season, Leicester, things had started to go off-course on home soil.
Southampton and Middlesbrough both triumphed in quick succession at Roker, and if this was not bad enough, sandwiched in between these defeats was a rather inglorious League Cup 2nd round/2nd leg home defeat at the hands of fourth Division Stockport, meaning that our interest in this particular competition had ended before it had even begun.
However, a week after the Boro defeat we maintained our unbeaten away record with a hard-fought 0-0 draw with Spurs at White Hart Lane, and the following week had a great chance to get back to winning ways at Roker when we entertained old foes Leeds.
The men from Elland Road had endured a poor start to 1980-81, having won just one of their opening seven league games, and as such they stood fourth from bottom in the first Division prior to their visit to Wearside. Things were not about to get much better for former Roker boss Jimmy Adamson’s side as we’d turned on the style, with Bryan Robson and Gary Rowell, who were both starting a home game together for the first time in the season, making a rather telling contribution.
In front of another bumper Roker crowd - this time just under 30,000, which included fair-sized contingent from Yorkshire - we started brightly.
After a fierce free-kick from Shaun Elliott had tested John Lukic, we when then took a firm grip on the game with two quick goals. The first arrived after eleven minutes, when Sam Allardyce picked out Alan Brown on the right wing, and Brown beat Leeds defender Neil Firm before slipping the ball to the unmarked “Pop” Robson, who had the easy task of tapping the ball home from close range.
Things looked promising, and the cheers of the home fans had barely died down when just three minutes hence we made it 2-0, with a similar move. This time Shaun Elliott released Stan Cummins on the left who, like Alan Brown before him, found Neil Firm something of an easy obstacle. Having got the better of the Leeds youngster Cummins could well have gone on alone, but he chose to square the ball to “Pop” Robson, who forced the ball over the line in spite of the efforts of Byron Stevenson to keep the ball out.
Neil Firm would endure something of a nightmare, and it was perhaps no surprise when he was yellow-carded just after the half-hour mark for a rather reckless challenge on Alan Brown, as Leeds’ frustration seemed to take its toll. Shortly afterwards, Leeds came close to pulling a goal back when following the award of a free-kick just outside our penalty area, Arthur Graham struck the upright with Chris Turner well beaten.
Graham was to play a rather decisive part in his side pulling goal back seven minutes into the second-half. His left-wing corner was cleared only as far as Bryan Flynn, whose shot was deflected past Chris Turner by Derek Parlane, who in all truth knew little about it - not that Leeds players and fans alike cared too much.
However, Leeds joy was short-lived, and any hope that they may have staged a revival seemed to be dashed just four minutes later, when we restored our two-goal cushion. Following some sustained pressure on the visitors goal, a cross from Kevin Arnott was headed home by Gary Rowell for what his first goal since he notched the winner in a Second Division clash against Leyton Orient at Roker in March 1979.
We continued to attack at every opportunity, and four minutes from time put the issue beyond doubt with a well-worked fourth goal. A well-measured through ball from Kevin Arnott picked out Alan Brown, who having turned provider for the all-important first goal, now turned goalscorer when he slotted the ball past keeper John Lukic to put the seal on what had been a fine afternoon’s work.
It was a well-deserved win, which hoisted us up to sixth place in the First Division table.
However, we were brought back down to earth with a bit of a bang the following week with a first away defeat, rather embarrassingly by 0-4 at Aston Villa, the eventual 1980-81 League Champions. While we made up for this rather painful reverse with three points from the next two games, at home against Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace, this proved to be false optimism of sorts, for we soon found ourselves in an all-too-familiar scenario, i.e. a battle for First Division survival.
Thankfully, it was a battle we’d ultimately win, albeit with not much to spare in the final analysis, and was in no small due to the goalscoring contribution of Gary Rowell.
He went on to chalk up a further nine league goals in 1980-81 to head our goalscoring charts come the season’s end, as he proved his worth to us yet again - something which maybe led us all to ask “just what would we have done without Lord Rowell?”