Things were looking promising for Sunderland AFC in the latter part of season 1979-80. After having endured a generally inconsistent spell during the first few months of the campaign, we’d then started to get our act together, and by the end of February, following a vital 1-0 home win against fellow promotion challengers Luton, we were handily placed in eighth spot in the Second Division table, just two points off third-placed Chelsea.
We then hit a bit of “a bump” of sorts, with successive 0-0 draws against two of the other promotion contenders, QPR at Loftus Road, and Leicester at home - the latter occasion being only the third time we’d lost a point at Roker so far in the campaign.
In fact, it was our impeccable/unbeaten home league form which had been mainly responsible for our position amongst the leading clubs in The Second Division. In contrast, our away record had been lacklustre to say the least; on our travels we’d managed only one win, and that was against bottom club Fulham at the back end of December.
However, the Lads had the perfect chance to at least partly rectify matters, when we visited another struggling London side: Charlton.
The Valiants stood second from bottom prior to our visit, and were looking odds-on for the drop come May. In front of a rather sparse crowd of just over 6,000, we were to show the hapless Londoners no mercy in our quest for two vital points to maintain our promotion bid.
Our side showed one change to that which had been held at home by Leicester, with Alan Brown returning at number nine in place of John Cooke. The Lads began brightly as a promising move saw Kevin Arnott & Steve Whitworth combine well on the right, before the latter picked out Claudio Marangoni, who neatly dummied over the ball. Unfortunately, there were none of his colleagues on hand to try and take advantage.
Charlton then responded, with some neat play of their own, but in the eleventh minute, we forced a breakthrough when, following a patient build-up, Kevin Arnott found Alan Brown near the penalty spot - Brown went on to beat keeper Nicky Johns, the ball going in via the upright.
Almost immediately we nearly conceded an equalizer when a careless pass from Stan Cummins almost set up a chance for Derek Hales, though fortunately Joe Hinnigan was alert to the situation, and was able to make a timely interception. Chris Turner then had to be alert to deal with a long ball from Phil Walker.
Just after the quarter-hour mark, though, we edged further in front with a brilliant goal. Claudio Marangoni and Alan Brown combined well to find Kevin Arnott, who neatly flicked the ball onto Stan Cummins, who then returned the ball to Arnott, who picked his spot with a superb curling effort.
The home side were clearly stung by this latest setback, and they came back strongly. Chris Turner pulled off what was surely the save of the match, when he dived to his left to parry a fierce drive from Steve Gritt before pouncing on the loose ball. Charlton then missed a great chance to reduce the deficit shortly afterwards, when Derek Hales was allowed to bear down on goal, in spite of appearing to have been in an offside position. Fortunately for us, he wasted the chance by sending his effort well off-target.
However, the Charlton revival proved to be somewhat short-lived, and normal service was soon resumed. Nicky Johns was forced to make smart saves from both Stan Cummins and Alan Brown, while the latter was also only inches off target with an overhead kick, following a free-kick from Kevin Arnott.
Sunderland’s pressure paid dividends just before the interval, though we needed a helping hand from a rather desperate Charlton side. Alan Brown & Pop Robson combined well to set up an opening for Stan Cummins, who in turn tried to find Kevin Arnott, but his pass was intercepted by Steve Gritt. However, when Gritt then tried to find his keeper, he only succeeded in playing the ball into the path of the lurking Robson, who gleefully accepted this gift, ramming home our third goal of the afternoon.
Game over so it appeared.
Not surprisingly, with such a seemingly unassailable lead, we began the second period in positive fashion. And after Kevin Arnott was just too high with a thirty-yard effort, Stan Cummins then missed a great chance to make it 4-0 after being set up by Rob Hindmarch, for while the diminutive forward’s shot beat Nicky Johns, it also travelled just the wrong side of the upright.
Cummins then shot rather weakly at Johns shortly afterwards before some rather casual play on our part almost led to Charlton pulling a goal back. Chris Turner threw the ball out to Steve Whitworth, who was robbed by Martin Robinson, and it took a great tackle from Jeff Clarke to foil the striker, who looked to be a certain scorer.
Alan Brown then went down injured after a challenge by Lawrie Madden, and it was soon obvious that he couldn’t continue - he was replaced by Gary Rowell.
Sunderland upped the pressures, and a tremendous effort from Gary Rowell from just outside the box forced a great save from Johns. Then in injury time, the fourth goal we’d been threatening duly arrived. Shaun Elliott was the architect, when he won the ball just inside the Charlton half, fended off the challenges of both Lawrie Madden & Phil Walker, then pulled the ball back from the byline for Pop Robson, who hammered home his second goal of the game.
The game finished 4-0, we’d rather ruthlessly taken apart our struggling hosts, and in all truth, the final scoreline in no way flattered us, such had been our overall dominance. It was only our second away league success of 1979-80, but easily our best, and while one could argue that it had been achieved v one of the Second Division’s strugglers, you can only beat what’s in front of you on the day, and it had been a fine afternoon’s work that provided a big boost to our promotion challenge.
The result also emulated the result we’d achieved v Charlton earlier in the season at Roker Park, when John Hawley had grabbed a hat-trick on his debut for us, but perhaps more crucially, it also moved us up one place to sixth in the table, just two points off third-placed Leicester, and with a game in hand.
And come the season’s end we did of course finish as runners-up to eventual Champions Leicester, while our opponents Charlton perhaps not too surprisingly, exited the Second Division in the opposite direction. Such can be the contrast in fortunes in the game of football.