Things were certainly looking up for Sunderland FC as the 1976-77 season edged towards it’s conclusion.
Having appeared to have been more-or-less down-and-out at one stage of the campaign, a rather remarkable revival, which saw abundantly scoring Sunderland secure successive home victories over Bristol City, Middlesbrough, WBA, West Ham and Ipswich, had injected new life into us, giving fresh hope that we might avoid what - at one stage - appeared to be the inevitable: an instant return to The Second Division.
However, the latter of the wins against high-flying Ipswich was sandwiched between consecutive away defeats at the hands of two of the other ‘giants’ of The First Division, which perhaps gave notice that we were still far from being home and dry.
These reverses were 0-1 at Manchester City (for whom Dennis Tueart scored the winner to snatch the points from his old club) and an abject 1-4 at League Cup Finalists Aston Villa - a result which consequently saw us slip back into the bottom three. We returned to winning ways in the next game, as we recorded a sixth straight home win against QPR, and while we remained in the relegation zone, this victory was still a bit of a boost ahead of a rather demanding Easter ‘treble-header’: a gauntlet of Newcastle, Leeds & Manchester United.
Things looked promising against the Mags at one stage, however. In front of what would unsurprisingly transpire to be our biggest home gate of the season at a staggering 46,000, goals from Kevin Arnott & Bob Lee saw us establish a 2-0 lead. Yet just when we appeared on course for a seventh straight home win and revenge for our defeat at Sid James at Christmas, our dear rivals fought back to eventually take a point - the game ending 2-2.
And it was a similar tale at Elland Road the following day, when we again lost a potential winning lead. Bob Lee’s second-half effort, his third goal in as many games, looked like it might have been enough to have given us a precious win, until Leeds leveled soon afterwards. So, after these two disappointments, would it then be a case of third time lucky when we faced off Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United at Roker Park on Easter Monday?
The answer would be yes, as we once again rose to the occasion, furthering the momentum of our tremendous home form to obtain a welcome, if somewhat surprising, result.
It was no doubt a stiff test as we went toe-to-toe with ‘The Red Devils’, who were not only riding high in the First Division, but were also through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup for the second season in a row. However, in front of another bumper home gate (this time just under 39,00) we’d proceed to give our survival bid another sizeable boost - with the game being won and lost within the first twenty minutes.
So in a cracking atmosphere worthy of such a big game, and playing towards the Roker End in the first-half, we began brightly, nearly grabbing a second-minute lead! Mel Holden sent in a powerful drive which took a deflection, almost deceiving United ‘keeper Alex Stepney, who grabbed the ball rather frantically at the second attempt, right on the fine edges of the goalline.
But just sixty seconds later we were back to grab a vital breakthrough. Tony Towers sent Joe Bolton away down the left and when the latter sent a powerful, low cross into the United penalty area, Alex Stepney this time failed completely to gather the ball; Kevin Arnott was perfectly placed to take full advantage of the consequences. Just the start we wished for.
Subsequently, and perhaps not too surprisingly, this opener acted as the cue for a sustained spell of United pressure - and after Stewart Houston had forced a fine save from Barry Siddall, the visitors drew level from the penalty spot on the quarter-hour mark: David McCreery had looked like getting the better of our defense for a while, so when he was eventually brought down inside the area, Gordon Hill converted the resultant spot-kick. Game on.
So having been pegged back in our two previous games and ultimately denied the win, some may have feared that it was going to be a case of déjà vu. But, we stuck to our task, and were rewarded after nineteen minutes, when we grabbed what turned out to be the match-winning goal.
Mel Holden was sandwiched inside the area by Martin Buchan and Jimmy Nicholl (later of course, to appear for us), which resulted in a penalty for ourselves. Tony Towers duly obliged, for what was his third goal of the season so far; quite a fitting addition to his tally, given that his other two also came against United, in the League Cup earlier in the campaign.
Tony Towers and Kevin Arnott then both came close to increasing our lead, while some rather sterling work on the part of Jackie Ashurst, Joe Bolton, Mick Docherty and Colin Waldron, helped us keep control of the game, in both defence and midfield respectively.
2-1 then at the break. It had been a solid, workmanlike performance so far and as such, we were surely worthy of our half-time advantage, slender though it may have been. Forty-five minutes now stood between us and a win famous and important in equal measures - could we go on to complete the job?
Well, sticking by the likely script, United came at us in rather determined fashion in the second period, an aggressive bid to retrieve the deficit.
After Tommy Docherty’s men had gained two corners in quick succession, a header from Stuart Pearson tested Barry Siddall, before Gordon Hill, who’d already been booked for dissent, was perhaps lucky not to ‘see red’, after a rather crude foul on Mick Docherty, with a tangible tension beginning to rise in the atmosphere.
We still had one or two chances to wrap the game up, but it was United who continued to pose the biggest threat, and Gordon Hill and Arthur Albiston both missed good chances as the game reached an exciting climax. But 2-1 was how it ended, which meant we’d taken three points from United in 1976-77, having drawn 3-3 at Old Trafford earlier in the season; this latest home win was proof once again, that on our day, we could live with the best in the land.
But, more importantly, the vital two points lifted us up out of the bottom three (albeit on goal difference) from Coventry, Derby, QPR, Spurs and West Ham, while the result was also the perfect morale booster ahead of a vital relegation four-pointer against Spurs at White Hart Lane, five days hence. The 1976-77 First Division relegation battle was edging towards a rather gripping climax, but the triumph over United illustrated that we were still very much ‘alive and kicking’, and prepared to battle on right to the bitter end.