It was peak 1980’s – whether it be Wham dominating the pop charts, the Miners Strike or the classic Nike kit which we wore. 1984/85 was a year in time and a season in our history which has always stuck in the memory.
Alan Durban’s slow build era had ended in March 1984, and with new manager Len Ashurst desperate to make changes by adding pace to what was a solid side – a sense of mild excitement was around in that summer as we thought that the team may progress.
The summer transfer business included Clive Walker, Gary Bennett and Howard Gayle arriving with Lee Chapman, Gary Rowell and Paul Bracewell leaving, and for people of my generation - most sadly - Gary Rowell departed for Norwich on a free transfer.
The season got off to a great start with a 3 - 1 win in the sun against a very good Southampton side - Gary Bennett scoring early past Peter Shilton. That autumn saw some good football with a run home wins against Spurs, QPR, Luton and Norwich. At the start of November, we were in seventh place and all was well in the football world.
We peaked with an unforgettable home game against Manchester United. The BBC TV cameras were present - we were the main match on Match of the Day - a big thing back then. After 15 minutes, we were two nil down to Ron Atkinson’s top of the table team as Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson each scored in front of the Fulwell End. Then a 30-minute hattrick by Clive Walker had this then 14-year-old lad dreaming in a packed Fulwell End.
On that late November day, we felt like we were on the up - ninth in the league - scoring goals and enjoying some excitement which was absent in the steady as she goes Durban years. However, this is Sunderland that we are talking about - our league form had peaked by late November. A miserable 4-0 home defeat by Leicester City with Gary Lineker and Alan Smith up front felt like the start of the rot – it was.
Defeat after defeat followed with a particular low point being the loss to a Peter Beardsley inspired Newcastle on New Year's Day. This was my first away derby – amongst the enemy as well. The racism directed towards Gary Bennett and Howard Gayle - which I witnessed - was something which was new to this spotty kid from a sheltered background. It was an experience which will live with me forever; perhaps it was the “just the times” but it was my first exposure to it, and it was truly shocking.
Despite our poor league form we were starting a run in the Milk Cup in that Autumn. A brilliant Howard Gayle goal saw off Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest and an inspired display by Chris Turner kept out a star-studded Spurs team - a rare quarter-final beckoned.
After Christmas our league form continued to be disastrous and the signings of Ian Wallace and Rueben Agboola had little to no impact. A huge loss however was - Mark Proctor to injury - in January - Steve Berry and Peter Daniel were totally inadequate replacements.
Defeat after defeat followed, and we were sinking in the league, but we were still progressing in the Milk Cup, winning away at Watford to set up one of the great nights at Roker Park... in my time anyway.
The first leg of the Milk Cup semi-final against Chelsea saw all sorts going on – off and on the pitch. Two Colin West penalties saw us win a tough match 2-0, Chelsea having a top-level attack of Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon and David Speedie. But events off the pitch summed up the times - seats flying from the Main Stand, Roker wing and general ructions all over - the notorious Chelsea Headhunters were in town. Another first for me, witnessing violence inside a football stadium. Again, maybe it was “just the times” – maybe.
Events at the home leg were nothing like the night at Stamford Bridge, however, with a Police horse on the pitch as Clive Walker scored to take us to Wembley for the first time since 1973.
This was long before the era when season tickets were the norm - so there was a literal lottery for a ticket of the final. An estimated 60,000 Sunderland fans packed into the old Wembley to see us lose to a Gordon Chisholm own goal to Norwich - the most memorable part of the day for me being the parachutist landing on the Wembley roof prior to kick off, and the coach breaking down just outside of Wembley. A complete disaster of a day.
After that Wembley loss, the season that started so promisingly ended with a whimpering slide to relegation. Len Ashurst had seemingly lost the plot, and he lost the dressing room as the team fell apart.
Easter saw the Wear-Tyne derby and a drab nil-nil draw played out. The match itself completely forgettable. Newcastle had turned into typically functional Jack Charlton team, and we were barely that. A few away fans chanting in the Fulwell and then running round the cinder track being the only event of note.
Young players Paul Lemon, John Cornforth and Gordon Armstrong made their debuts, with defeat after depressing defeat – heavily at home to Ipswich and Villa late on - remaining in the memory bank, and an inevitable relegation ensued.
The team at the end of that season bore little resemblance to the one at the beginning and the solidity which had been instilled by Durban in the years before had gone – we were a disorganised shambles, physically small and mentally weak. Has it always been thus?
Another first for me at that season’s end was the experience of real protest by supporters, with one lad marching in double denim to the centre circle at half time and showing his backside to Tom Cowie, who was presumably present to witness. Chants of “Turner must stay” for player of the season Chris Turner were no more than shouts of desperate defiance.
A miserable end to what was strangely still a memorable season. That year saw huge changes, with soon-to-open Nissan works rising and also the change in direction of the club. The summer saw the appointment of Lawrie McMenemy and all the longer-term consequences which that appointment brought.