After a disappointing mid-table finish in our post-relegation season of 1970-71, and a bit of a sticky start to the 1971-72 campaign, we’d gradually began to get our act together.
After a 4-1 win against Middlesbrough at Roker we stood fourth the Second Division table, and looked a good prospect for promotion. However, we then hit another sticky patch, for the next eleven games produced just two victories and no less than seven draws - including four at Roker, when Blackpool, Bristol City, Luton and Norwich all returned home with a point as we experienced something of a drought in terms of home wins.
Not too surprisingly, this rather inconsistent form saw us start to drift away from the leaders as the season entered December. However, we then had an ideal chance to return to winning ways when we entertained a Fulham side languishing in the lower half of the table.
The Cottagers had found the going tough since their promotion from the Third Division at the end of the previous season, and had triumphed just twice on their travels. And as events turned out, things were not about to get much better for The Londoners on their trip to Wearside - though not before they’d threatened to provide a bit of a shock at one stage of proceedings.
Our side showed one or two changes to that beaten at QPR the previous week. Richie Pitt was ruled out with a bruised ankle, and his place in defence was taken by Brian Chambers, while Ian Porterfield also returned to the side after a month’s absence due to a hairline fracture injury. But perhaps the most notable absence was that of Jim Montgomery, who’d suffered a similar injury to Porterfield in the game at QPR. His place was taken by Derek Forster, who was making his first appearance in the first team since he played in a First Division game at Ipswich, in March 1970.
In front of crowd of just under 12,000 and facing a stiff breeze, we kicked off attacking the Fulwell End, and we had two early chances to take the lead. After just six minutes, Fulham keeper Malcolm Webster misjudged a long centre from Dick Malone, and this presented a great opportunity for Dennis Tueart, who lobbed the ball over Webster’s head, but unfortunately defender Alan Stephenson got back in time to prevent a certain goal.
Just four minutes later, a throw-in from Billy Hughes caused anxiety in the visitors defence, which left Ian Porterfield in a one-v-one situation with Malcolm Webster, but the keeper was able to narrow the angle sufficiently and Porterfield’s lobbed effort travelled over the bar.
Then when Fulham went on the offensive for the first time, Barry Lloyd beat both Dick Malone and Bobby Kerr to set up a chance for Roger Cross, who hit a powerful, dipping effort just over the top. Steve Earle then threatened when he cut inside from the right and bore down on our goal, but thankfully he shot wide.
A rather astute pass from Bobby Kerr then opened up the Fulham defence, and looked like setting Billy Hughes free, but Malcolm Webster was quickly out to collect the ball before Hughes could take advantage. Then in the twenty-fourth minute Fulham took a surprise lead when Les Barrett gained possession a few years outside our area, hitting a powerful left-footed drive which flew into the net.
There then followed a rather incredible sequence of events.
Just a minute after taking the lead, Fulham appeared to have gone 2-0 up through Roger Cross, but the Fulham man was adjudged to have handled as he put the ball in the net, thus handing us a reprieve. Then an Ian Porterfield corner picked out Dennis Tueart, who headed home, but the equalizer was chalked off following an infringement. Fulham then had the ball in our net a third time, this time through Barry Lloyd, but this latest goal was also disallowed, apparently after a foul committed by Roger Cross.
So we went in at the break trailing 0-1, though it wasn’t really for the want of trying on our part. Would we be able to make amends in the second period, now that we’d have the advantage of the wind behind us? The answer would be a very definite yes, and we began the second-half brightly.
After Malcolm Webster had had to move smartly to gather a centre from Bobby Kerr, the diminutive Scot was at the heart of another attacking move shortly afterwards when he set Billy Hughes away. The latter’s cross was headed down by Dave Watson to Kerr, who was in a great shooting position. However, instead of going for goal, he played the ball to Dennis Tueart, who’d strayed into an offside position.
Derek Forster then had to react smartly to foil Steve Earle, but most of the action was now centred on the Fulham goal. After Billy Hughes and Bobby Kerr had caused one or two problems for the visitor’s defence, our persistence finally paid off on the hour mark. Dennis Tueart did the spadework on the left-wing, and his centre to the far post was met by Billy Hughes, who headed home the equaliser.
This seemed to spark fresh life into us, and Dennis Tueart then had a fierce effort turned over the bar by Malcolm Webster as we stepped up the pressure. Then in a somewhat brief Fulham attack, a shot from Jimmy Conway was well off-target following a free-kick. Normal service was soon resumed, and Malcolm Webster had to clear a centre from Dick Malone at the expense of a corner, though Dennis Tueart’s inswinger landed on the roof of the net.
Then in another couple of rather rare Fulham raids, Les Barrett shot just wide, before Derek Forster was forced to make a fine save to deny Steve Earle. But this proved to be mere respite for The Londoners, for the one-way traffic towards the visitors goal soon resumed.
Billy Hughes and Bobby Kerr both had powerful efforts blocked, then Dave Watson headed over following a Kerr corner as we went all-out for a second goal.
Just when it looked as if we’d have to settle for a fifth successive home draw, we then grabbed what proved to be the winning goal with just four minutes left on the clock. Steve Earle was pulled up for a foul, and Brian Chambers free-kick picked out Dennis Tueart, who having set up the first goal now became provider turned goalscorer, as he coolly slotted the ball home to give us what was in all truth a deserved lead.
We kept up the pressure, and could have had added to our goal tally as chances fell to both Bobby Kerr and Dick Malone, but 2-1 was how it ended.
We’d made slightly hard work of matters but, overall, we seemed well worthy of what was our first home success for over two months. The welcome win also moved us up to fifth in the Second Division, and at the same time seemed to reignite our promotion hopes.
However, the following game, also at Roker, saw yet another stalemate, though the 3-3 encounter with another side with promotion ambitions, Millwall, was surely one of the most entertaining home games of the 1971-72 campaign.
We did conclude the first half of the league programme on a high, with a 3-2 festive win at lowly Hull which saw us again reach fourth place in the Second Division table, and it appeared that we may just go on fulfil our First Division ambitions come the end of the season.
Unfortunately this wasn’t to be, as we ended 1971-72 in fifth place, though this rather promising finish perhaps gave encouragement that the good times were not too far away - though it would take a change of manager and a famous cup final win to do the trick.