Season 1980-81 saw us return to the “big time” after a four-year exile in the old Second Division and after an encouraging start to the campaign, including when we’d actually topped the old First Division after only two games, many of us no doubt hoped that relegation battles were now a things of the past.
However, as it turned out, such hopes appeared ill-founded, for despite appearing to be still comfortably holding our own by around about mid-October time, thereafter it was more or less downhill all the way; our 1980-81 campaign was to develop into an all-too-familiar scenario - a struggle for First Division survival.
Thus, as the season neared it’s conclusion, our top-flight status hung in the balance. With with two games to go, we stood just four places and two points off the dreaded drop zone and our penultimate fixture/last home game of 1980-81 could have not been a more potentially nerve-jangling affair: a crucial four-pointer versus Brighton.
Prior to the game, the Seagulls lay in third-bottom spot, but a win for ourselves would more or less guarantee at least one more season in the First Division. A point might have even sufficed, if results elsewhere went our way, but Brighton were equally as needy for the points to aid their own survival bid.
A tense afternoon was surely in store for all at Roker Park, on Saturday, April 25, 1981.
Caretaker manager Mick Docherty made two changes to the side beaten at WBA five days earlier, Shaun Ellliott and Gary Rowell returning to the side, in place of the suspended future gaffer Sam Allardyce and Hawthorns debutant Rob Vincent respectively. So on a bright afternoon Brighton, having lost the toss, started the game attacking the Roker End, before a crowd of just over 22,000.
The visitors were the first to threaten through Steve Foster and Brian Horton, but the move broke down pretty quickly and Joe Bolton then proceeded to send Stan Cummins away. Cummins in turn found Tom Ritchie, whose cross forced Brighton keeper Perry Digweed to make his first meaningful save; Digweed was in action again soon afterwards, when he had to race from his box to clear a badly directed back pass from Gary Williams, as Tom Ritchie made to take advantage of the slip.
We were now starting to gain the upper hand - Stan Cummins, having beaten Chris Ramsay, was then obstructed by Steve Foster, just outside the box. Cummins himself took the free-kick, laying the ball sideways to Mick Buckley, the fierce subsequent effort bringing a great save from Digweed, rewarding us only with a corner. But from that flag-kick we nearly grabbed the lead, Ritchie’s header agonizingly cleared from the line by Chris Ramsay; Digweed was well beaten this time.
Ritchie and Mick Buckley then combined well and the latter’s eventual cross was turned behind by Chris Ramsay for another corner. Buckley took the kick only to see it cleared behind for another set-piece, which came to nothing. We then gained two further corners in rather quick succession, as we stepped up the pressure in the search for a vital breakthrough. But the first of these was cleared, while from the second Joe Hinnigan headed straight at the goalkeeper.
But then, in the thirty-fifth minute - and very much against the run of play - Brighton took the lead.
It all stemmed from a foul by Joe Bolton on Ritchie. Rob Hindmarch cleared Brian Horton’s free-kick, but Brighton immediately regained possession and when Shaun Elliott failed to clear his lines effectively, Gary Williams played the ball back into the middle to Mike Robinson, who beat Barry Siddall point-blanc.
Despite being no doubt stung by this rather unexpected setback, we responded positively. A free-kick from Joe Hinnigan, awarded after a foul by Chris Ramsay on Stan Cummins, caused some anxiety in the Brighton goalmouth, but unfortunately we were unable to take advantage. There followed a scare for us, when Brighton had the ball in the net again, but thankfully (and much to the relief of the desperation mounting on the home crowd) John Gregory’s effort was disallowed by a somewhat dubious offside decision
But we ended the half the stronger side and Stan Cummins raised our hopes of an equalizer, following a mistake by Mark Lawrenson. Though after going past Chris Ramsay and Steve Foster, he was crowded out when he also tried to round Brian Horton in a motion of play where he may have been better off just going for goal! Afterward occurred a rather bizarre incident, for when a corner taken by Cummins was flicked on by Alan Brown, the ball then rebounded off a Brighton defender and struck Brown on it’s way behind for a goal kick.
0-1 then at the break.
Not an insurmountable deficit, so could we respond meaningfully in the second-half, to obtain a possible status-saving result? Well, the second period got off to a scrappy start, with both ourselves and Brighton failing to make any real progress. However, we soon settled back down to our task and, after winning another corner, it looked as though we were on course for an equalizer. A Cummins in-swinger was met by Gary Rowell, though while his powerful header beat Digweed, Steve Foster was on hand to clear from the line.
Undeterred, we maintained the pressure: another corner kick in our favour was cleared by the Brighton defence, before an effort from Joe Hinnigan lacked sufficient power to seriously trouble Digweed. Then, in the fifty-fourth minute, the visitors should have been reduced to ten men. Andy Ritchie sent Shaun Elliott flying with a vicious-looking tackle, as the tension of the occasion seemed to take it’s toll. Indeed, the ex-Manchester United man was perhaps lucky to escape with just a stern lecture from the referee when - on another occasion - he would surely have been sent for an early bath.
Then in a somewhat rare attack, Brighton nearly doubled their advantage, but Siddall pulled off a great save to deny Robinson his second goal of the game, when he dived to push the striker’s close-range shot behind for a corner, which fortunately proved fruitless.
But just past the hour-mark, Roker Park erupted, as our unrelenting pressure and finally paid dividends! A corner from Cummins was only partly cleared and Elliott was quickest to react, gaining possession and playing the ball through for Alan Brown, who slotted the ball past Digweed from close range. Game on.
The crowd now firmly behind them, Sunderland continued to push forward, sensing that a win and the ultimate goal of top tier survival could well be imminent.
Following yet another corner, Alan Brown failed to double his goal tally, when he headed well over the top. But Brighton were by no means out of it: a point emphasized when Hindmarch had to clear a dangerous cross from John Gregory. Then a bad pass from Gordon Chisholm could have led to trouble at the back, but thankfully the ball was cleared and the subsequent attack saw Cummins send over a cross to find Rowell, who beat Lawrenson only to then send his header wide.
There then followed a neat move on the flank involving Hinnigan and Buckley, which set Stan Cummins free, and Digweed had to leave his line quickly to reach the diminutive striker’s cross - ahead of the onrushing Ritchie.
Sunderland looked to have the stronger foothold in this fixture but Brighton had the capacity to make this an end-to-end affair. Siddall was almost caught out by tricky header from Foster, following a free-kick. The same Brighton player was then denied what appeared a certain goal by Hindmarch, merely conceding a corner instead.
But just when it looked as if we’d gained a precious and possibly status-saving point - disaster struck. With the game now into injury time, Gordon Smith slung over a deep cross from the right which picked out Gary Williams, who gleefully swept the ball past Sidall, to thus win the game for his side right at the death.
Utterly deflating to say the least.
It was a case of now surely fearing the worst, for this rather sickening last-gasp defeat left us just a point off the First Division’s bottom three, with just one game to try and save ourselves - at Liverpool of all places!
It seemed like ‘mission impossible’, but thanks to a first half goal from Cummins, we pulled off an invaluable, if unlikely, win against the now-dethroned League Champions, to thus secure our survival.
But in the end, it was all purely academic, for as it turned out, we’d have been safe regardless of the outcome of our game at Anfield. Norwich’s home defeat against the already-doomed Leicester meant The Canaries accompanied The Foxes and bottom club Crystal Palace, whose fate had been sealed for several weeks.
Unfortunately, potentially costly defeats and nervy last-day scenarios such as those versus Brighton and Liverpool were to become a common feature in years to come. Sunderland AFC have certainly kept us fans on tenterhooks at times, whether for good or bad!