Our post relegation season of 1977/78 had been somewhat disappointing, for generally inconsistent form throughout the campaign meant that we’d never really threatened at any time to reclaim our First Division place.
Perhaps then, there’d been doubts in some quarters as to our promotion prospects in 1978-79. These doubts seemed justified when, after an uncertain start to the season, we found ourselves in the lower half of the Second Division table by mid-September.
However, the side gradually got our act together, and by Christmas were looking like genuine promotion contenders - something perhaps emphasized by a tremendous 4-1 win at Sid James near the end of February. As the season’s neared its conclusion, we stood in the top three, with a return to the First Division looking a very real prospect.
There came a “blip” of sorts over Easter when we suffered a rather surprise 0-1 home defeat by relegation-threatened Blackburn; thankfully, there was to be no slip-up when we faced another of the strugglers, Sheffield United, in the next game at Roker, which was in fact our penultimate home game of the season.
The home game against The Blades had originally been scheduled to have taken place the week before the return fixture at Sid James, but was one of many postponements, due to the bad winter of 1979, which decimated the football programme in Britain. So with our visitors battling to stave off the threat of relegation to the Third Division for the first time ever, and ourselves aiming to leave The Second Division in the opposite direction, the game looked like being a keenly-contested affair, in front of a gate of just under 30,000.
However, we were stunned in only the fourth minute, when United grabbed the lead. Their Argentinian ace Alex Sabella floated over an in swinging corner, which was touched on by Mick Speight at the near post to Tony Kenworthy at the other side of goal - he beat Barry Siddall with a firm header.
Sunderland responded positively to this early setback, and Kevin Arnott, Mick Buckley & Mick Docherty began to impose a grip on midfield, while Alan Brown showed one or two promising touches up front.
Our efforts were rewarded in the thirteenth minute when we drew level, albeit from the penalty spot. Alan Brown had been put through clear on goal, only to be upended by Les Tibbott inside the area. Wilf Rostron duly obliged from the spot, sending Blades keeper Steve Conroy the wrong way.
We kept up the pressure, and this led to us taking a deserved lead in the twenty-first minute. A fine move ended with Mick Buckley firing in a powerful drive which beat Steve Conroy, but then came back into play off the upright. Thankfully, the ball fell rather kindly for Tim Gilbert, whose own fierce effort passed through the keeper’s hands into the net. Mick Guy then had a couple of good chances for the visitors, but the interval came with our 2-1 lead intact.
The second-half was just two minutes old when we increased our advantage. A long clearance from Barry Siddall was flicked on by Bob Lee to Alan Brown, and the latter used his pace to good effect when he raced clear, rounded Steve Conroy, before shooting into the empty net.
Then just eight minutes later, it appeared more or less game over, as we made it 4-1, with what was perhaps the goal of the game. Kevin Arnott, after exchanging passes with Mick Docherty, crossed from the right, and Alan Brown touched the ball onto Bob Lee, who forced the ball home at the far post.
It was now surely just a matter of how many more we’d score before the end of the game, but just a minute after we’d notched our fourth of the night, The Blades reduced the deficit. Alex Sabella picked up a stray header from Jackie Ashurst in midfield then charged down on goal before hitting a left-foot shot which appeared to take a deflection on its way past Barry Siddall.
This second goal seemed to inject fresh life into United, and Barry Siddall, who had saved a free-kick from future Middlesbrough manager Bruce Rioch in the first-half, then excelled himself again, when he held a powerful drive from Gary Hamson, following another free-kick as the visitors sensed they may just get some reward from the game.
However, any hopes of a United revival were dashed by two goals inside a minute near the end of the match - both courtesy of Wilf Rostron. Firstly, after having been put through by a neat pass by Alan Brown, Rostron was fouled by Steve Conroy after he’d rounded the keeper, and he duly converted his second spot-kick of the game. Then sixty seconds later, Rostron was celebrating his hat-trick, when he stormed through the United defence, and finished in style with a powerful left-foot drive.
There was more drama to come right at the death, when The Blades were awarded a penalty, after Jackie Ashurst fouled Peter Anderson inside the area. Gary Hamson was entrusted with the spot-kick, but his powerful effort was kept out by Barry Siddall, who got down well to his right to save.
So the game ended 6-2; it had been a splendid night’s work, while this great win also put us top of the Second Division for the first time in 1978-79 - albeit on goal difference from Stoke City.
A return to England’s “elite” now looked a real possibility. However, disaster then struck in the following game, our last of the season at Roker, when another side threatened with the drop, Cardiff, pulled off a shock 2-1 win, which meant we dropped back down to third.
We did get back on track with a 2-1 win in our final game of the season at Wrexham, but then faced a rather nerve-wracking waiting game, for Crystal Palace, another of the promotion challengers, who’d won a crunch “four-pointer” at Roker in March, had a game in hand on FA Cup Final eve. All we could do then was sweat it out, and hope that Burnley, Palace’s final opponents of the season, could do us a big favour.
Alas, sadly for us, Palace got the win they needed to claim not only the third promotion place, but also the Second Division Championship, while we missed out on a return to the promised land by a single point. It had been all so cruel, and we were all left perhaps to rue in particular, those rather disastrous home reverses by Blackburn and Cardiff. In fact, we suffered five home league defeats in total in 1978-79, a statistic one could maybe argue should not be associated to a side with genuine promotion ambitions.
Fortunately, we soon recovered from the setback of 1978-79, when we went up as Second Division runners-up in 1979-80, this time helped in no small way by the rather proud statistic of an unbeaten home league record - there can indeed be no place like home!