Following a near miss in the Second Division promotion stakes in 1974-75, the following season would see Sunderland more than make up for the disappointment. During the first four months of the 1975-76 campaign, the Lads were more or less unstoppable, and in spite of one or two “hiccups” during the winter, by the time the vital Easter “sorting out” period came round, we were looking more or less certain to regain our place amongst the elite of English football.
Realistically, we needed five points from our remaining four games to be sure of visits to Anfield, Old Trafford & the like in 1976-77, but as we also had our sights on the league title, we really needed to go all-out for maximum reward. And this made for a rather gripping but also exciting climax to our 1975-76 campaign.
So “the countdown” began with a visit to Hull City on Easter Saturday, and our side showed one change to that which had beaten Blackburn at Roker the previous week, when Gary Rowell came in for only his second full start of the season, in place of the suspended Tony Towers. It was also a “homecoming” for Roy Greenwood, who’d moved to Roker from Boothferry Park earlier in the year. And, perhaps not surprisingly, given it was such a comparatively short away trip, we were backed by a rather substantial following, which helped give Hull their best home gate of the season - just over 21,000 - which more than doubled their normal average. And those loyal, travelling away fans were in for a treat.
Despite the big win that would come, it was Hull who began the brightest thanks to some rather sterling work in particular from Jackie Ahsurst. However, after a good start, the home side’s early threat soon evaporated. Then in our first offensive, Mel Holden had a couple of efforts charged down before Jim Montgomery easily dealt with a rather tame effort from Jimmy McIntosh.
Dick Malone was then off-target with a thirty-yard effort, and Gary Rowell just failed in his attempt to pick out Roy Greenwood. It was pretty much end-to-end stuff at this stage of proceedings, but after Ray Train had helped relieve a rather dangerous situation, which had been set up by Chris Galvin, we grabbed the lead in the twenty-third minute, following a foul on Bobby Kerr by the aforementioned Hull player.
Dick Malone’s free-kick reached Jackie Ashurst at the far post, who nodded the ball back into the middle to “Pop” Robson, whose own header travelled through the hands of Hull’s Darlington-born keeper Jeff Wealands into the net.
Then shortly afterwards, Wealands made a much better job of things, when dealing with a “Pop” Robson corner, which was bound for Mel Holden’s head. We then had a lucky escape, following a quick Hull breakaway. Jeff Hemmerman played a fine through ball to set Dave Sunley free through the middle, and despite being faced by several of our defenders, Sunley still managed to find space for a shot, which struck the left-hand post, and rebounded into the hands of a rather grateful Jim Montgomery.
We then had claims for a penalty turned down when Roy Greenwood appeared to have been fouled by Stuart Croft inside the area, but in the thirty-fifth minute, Hull drew level. A free-kick from Roger DeVries picked out Jeff Hemmerman, who nodded the ball into the middle to find Stuart Croft and he beat Jim Montgomery with a well-placed header. Game on.
Boosted by this equalizer, City were soon back on the offensive, and took the game to Sunderland for a spell of time. We then regained the lead after thirty-five minutes, though, courtesy of Gary Rowell’s first-ever goal for us.
The Seaham-born youngster collected the ball thirty-five yards out, and let fly with a tremendous effort which left Jeff Wealands helpless. This seemed to inject fresh life into us, and after “Pop” Robson had headed narrowly wide following a cross from Roy Greenwood, we edged further ahead, though we needed a touch of good fortune. Ian Dobson, in attempting to clear a “Pop” Robson centre, succeeded only in turning the ball into his own goal, to give us a rather commanding 3-1 half-time lead.
We began the second period on the offensive, and Mel Holden only just failed to reach a cross from Kerr. Then some fine defensive work from Bob Moncur and Joe Bolton and checked a couple of City raids, before an offside decision against “Pop” Robson foiled a promising attack.
But we maintained the pressure, and after Hull had briefly threatened, we again came close to a fourth goal. “Pop” Robson won the ball on the left and sent over a hard, low centre to the opposite side to pick out Bobby Kerr, whose effort beat Jeff Wealands, only to strike the underside of the bar. And Mel Holden, following up on the rebound, fired the ball wide.
It was now very much one-way traffic, and only a great double save from Jeff Wealands prevented us from going 4-1 up. A great ball from Gary Rowell picked out Bobby Kerr, who in turn found Ray Train, whose powerful effort was blocked by Wealands, who then also managed to push away Mel Holden’s follow-up effort.
However, the fourth goal we’d been threatening eventually arrived nine minutes from time. A fine ball from Roy Greenwood sent Ray Train clear down the right, and while Train’s eventual shot was blocked, Mel Holden was perfectly placed to prod the ball home, and put the issue beyond doubt. And we could have added to our lead after some great work by Bobby Kerr, but Mel Holden was twice off target from good positions.
It had been a workmanlike display and a deserved win for Sunderland, even though it was only our fifth away from home all season. But the important thing was was that we were now back on top of the Second Division table, a point clear of second-placed Bristol City and two clear of third-placed WBA, with a game in hand over both clubs. The fine win at Boothferry Park also put us in fine fettle for our next game, a crunch promotion four-pointer against fourth-placed Bolton, at Roker Park on Easter Monday.
And in front of a bumper crowd of just under 52,000, we sealed our return to “the big time”, with a 2-1 win v a Bolton side which featured a few rather familiar names, i.e. Barry Siddall, Sam Allardyce and Peter Reid, all of whom would later move on to Wearside.
However, while the “first leg” of our objective had been completed, the Championship champagne remained on ice, following a 0-1 defeat in the final away game at one of manager Bob Stokoe’s former clubs, Blackpool.
But we made no mistake in the last game of the season at Roker, when front of 40,515 onlookers, we took the title with a 2-0 win v bottom club Portsmouth. So after one or two near misses, we’d finally made it back to where most of us believe we truly belonged. 1975-76 had indeed been a rather memorable chapter in our history.