After a promising final position of fifth in the Second Division in 1971-72, hopes were no doubt high that we’d push on even further in 1972-73, and possibly reclaim the First Division place we’d lost in 1970.
We began the new campaign promisingly, suffering just two defeats in the first ten games, which meant we stood handily placed in seventh spot at the end of September - just four points off the top two places.
However, it was then that things went pear-shaped, for October began rather badly to say the least, with a 1-5 hammering at Oxford (and this after we’d led 1-0 at the break) - and by the end of the month, we had a solitary point to show for our efforts after a rather uninspiring 0-0 home draw with Fulham.
As a result of this poor form, we slipped down to fourteenth place in the Second Division table, then to compound matters we soon found ourselves manageress. Shortly after the Fulham game it was announced that manager Alan Brown had left Sunderland for the second time, on this occasion by “mutual consent”. Perhaps in view the side’s recent form this wasn’t such a surprise, for maybe the SAFC board felt that Brown was not the man to try to lead us back to the First Division. So, first-team coach Billy Elliott was place in temporary charge of first-team affairs, while the club searched for a permanent replacement.
Elliott’s first game in the Roker hot-seat could not have been more demanding, even though it was our most attractive home fixture of the season so far.
It was a meeting with Aston Villa, who were riding high in third place in the Second Division table after having made a strong start to life back in the second tier, following their elevation as Third Division Champions at the end of the previous campaign.
The Midlands side had also beaten us 2-0 in the season’s first meeting at Villa Park in September - though this had been a travesty of justice in a way, in view of how we’d dominated the game for large periods. We were also on a bit of a revenge mission of sorts, and our side showed two changes to that held by Fulham the previous week, with Billy Hughes and Brian Chambers replacing Mick McGiven and John Lathan respectively.
So in front of the best Roker crowd of the season so far - just under 19,000 - we kicked-off attacking the Fulwell End and were given a dream start after just fifty-five seconds. Villa skipper and future Middlesbrough manager Bruce Rioch attempted a rather ambitious pass back to his keeper Jim Cumbes from midfield, and this was intercepted by Billy Hughes, who raced past two defenders and then drew Cumbes from his goal, before slotting the ball into an empty net.
Dennis Tueart and Bobby Kerr then proceeded to cause one or two further problems for the Villa defence, then Villa’s first real attack of the game led to Alun Evans forcing a right-wing corner. And when Bruce Rioch’s flag kick was only partly cleared by Dave Watson, Geoff Vowden shot over the bar.
Villa were soon back on the offensive, and Keith Coleman saved a certain boal when he blocked a close-range Bruce Rioch effort, then when play quickly switched to other end, Brian Chambers sent in a fierce drive which lifted over the bar.
Then after we’d won another corner which this time proved fruitless, a promising move ended with Dick Malone having right-foot shot pushed out, and when the full-back tried again, Jim Cumbes produced a fine save.
The Villa keeper was in action again shortly afterwards, when he gathered a powerful shot from Dennis Tueart as we sought to build on our early advantage.
Then in the twentieth minute, and very much against the run of play, Villa equalized,when Bruce Rioch made amends for his earlier error. Some rather sloppy defensive play on our part enabled the Scottish midfielder to gain possession at the angle of the penalty area, and he beat Jim Montgomery with a powerful shot which went into the net via the upright.
We responded positively, and after Dennis Tueart had forced another fine save from Jim Cumbes, Billy Hughes got himself into a promising position when a high ball came into the Villa area. However, he then lost his balance at the crucial moment and lifted his effort the bar.
We then had a couple of scares when following a rather determined Villa attack, the ball was twice cleared from our goal line with Jim Montgomery beaten on both occasions.
Normal service was soon resumed, and Dennis Tueart forced another save from Jim Cumbes which led to a corner. Tueart himself took the kick, and picked out Micky Horswill, whose looping header was just over the top. But we maintained the pressure, and Billy Hughes was only just inches away from applying the finishing touch to a great pass from Dick Malone which had split the Villa defence apart.
1-1 then at the break.
It had been an entertaining first-half, and perhaps in view of the overall balance of play - perhaps we were unlucky not to be in front. We began the second period brightly, and a free-kick following a foul by Bruce Rioch on Richie Pitt caused an anxious moment or two in the Villa defence before the ball was finally cleared, then a promising move involving Malone, Chambers and Hughes was finally halted by an offside decision.
However, we maintained the more or less non-stop pressure on the Villa goal, and a promising move looked like restoring our lead. Dennis Tueart and Ian Porterfield combined well to set Billy Hughes free, but the move looked like ending when the latter was beaten to the ball by Jim Cumbes. However, the keeper’s clearance was deflected into the path of Bobby Kerr, who went for goal only to see his effort take a deflection, though it landed nicely for Billy Hughes, but unfortunately his header was just over the bar.
Jim Cumbes then had to dive out to take a centre from Dennis Tueart, and the keeper was in action again soon afterwards, when he collected a header from Brian Chambers, after Dave Watson had headed on a free-kick from Richie Pitt.
Then in a somewhat rare Villa attack, Bruce Rioch went on a strong run down the right, before bringing in Alun Evans and Brian Little, but when the ball finally reached Willie Anderson, he wasted the chance by shooting wide from a good position.
Just after the hour mark, we regained the lead. A foul by John Gidman on Dennis Tueart led to a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, which was taken by Ian Porterfield, and his perfectly flighted ball to the near post picked out his fellow Scot Bobby Kerr, who beat Jim Cumbes with a fine header.
But this goal was the cue for a rather determined Villa fightback, and as such, our defence was subjected to an uneasy time. And the visitors persistence paid off in the sixty-seventh minute, when they drew level for a second time in the game, though again, it was against the overall run of play. Bruce Rioch brought in Willie Anderson, whose centre picked out Brian Little, and the County Durham-born forward’s header looped over Jim Montgomery, who’d been caught slightly off his line. Game on.
This second equalizer seemed to inject fresh impetus into Villa, and following a free-kick, Alun Evans was just off-target with a header, and the same player came close shortly afterwards, when he just failed to meet a centre from Bruce Rioch. But we finished the stronger side, and Keith Coleman shot over from the edge of the penalty area, before a corner kick led to more pressure on the Villa goal. But the game ended 2-2, it had been an entertaining spectacle, and perhaps proved that there was life after Alan Brown, and that there was some hope for the future.
However, this was one of only two points gained during November (the other being v Hull, also at Roker), and two away defeats at Carlisle and Bristol City plunged us further down the table, in fact by the end of the month, we languished outside the bottom three only on goal difference. But then enter Bob Stokoe as our new manager, and he brought about a transformation which even the most optimistic of us surely couldn’t have even dreamed of at the time. For not only did “The Messiah” guide us to a respectable sixth-place finish in the Second Division, but also to the greatest moment in our history, when we triumphed over Leeds in the FA Cup Final at Wembley.
Certainly the stuff that dreams are made of.