Things were looking promising for Sunderland AFC as the 1979-80 campaign neared it’s “business end”. For prior to the rather crucial Easter programme, and following an unbeaten run through March and a second successive away win, this time at Notts County, we stood handily placed in fourth spot, though our next game couldn’t have been more crucial/demanding, a home promotion “four-pointer” against Newcastle, who also had their sights on the First Division.
We were also on something of a revenge mission, as The Mags had beaten us 3-1 at Sid James on the first day of 1980, though that had proved to have been a blessing in disguise of sorts, for we’d tasted defeat just once in the league since, at Preston in mid-February, as our own push for The First Division had rather noticeably gathered momentum. Thus the latest meeting with “The Old Foe” had all the ingredients of an Easter extravaganza, when local pride and also two vital promotion points were at stake.
And as events turned out, it would be Wearside who’d end up celebrating.
A tight first half
So on a sunny afternoon in early April, and in front of an all-ticket crowd of just under 42,000, our highest home gate since the visit of Bolton four years previous, Newcastle, having lost the toss, began the game by attacking The Fulwell End. And the first real chance fell the way of The Mags, when Terry Hibbitt crossed to find Bobby Shinton, but his header lacked any real power, and was easily collected by Chris Turner.
Then in our first real attack, Stan Cummins won a corner off Tommy Cassidy, though when Kevin Arnott’s inswinger was partially cleared, Alan Brown was caught offside when the ball was returned to the middle. A fine ball from Steve Whitwoth then found Stan Cummins unmarked on the left, though when the diminutive striker brought in Joe Hinnigan, the latter sent his cross into the Roker End crowd.
The early play had been pretty even, and after Jeff Clarke had cleared a Newcastle free-kick, we won another corner. And Kevin Arnott’s flag-kick picked out Brown, who attempted a first-time shot, but his effort lacked any real power, and keeper Steve Hardwick, later of course to appear for us on loan, had no problems in saving.
Both sides continued to feel each other out, as they sought to gain control, but without creating real openings. While the early play also tended to punctuated by several fouls, perhaps not surprising, given the occasion. Newcastle then won their first corner of the game, and while Peter Withe won in the air from Terry Hibbitt’s inswinger, a free-kick was awarded against the giant striker, after he’d gained an unfair advantage by pushing. We then forced another flag-kick, taken once more by Kevin Arnott, and when Alan Brown flicked the ball on, the Newcastle defence came under a fair bit of pressure, before the ball was finally cleared.
Newcastle had possibly played the better football and had the edge on proceedings so far, and they almost grabbed the lead just past the half-hour mark. Some neat work from Steve Carney enabled him to find Cassidy, and the Irishman then weaved his way into the box before chipping Turner, but thankfully the effort just cleared the bar, though it was certainly a let-off and a signal of The Mags intent.
Indeed, Newcastle were soon back on the offensive, and a cross from Peter Withe led to a fair bit of anxiety in our defence. And when the ball finally broke to Ian Davies, his shot cleared the bar, though the flag had already gone up for offside. But we were by no means out of it, though after a neat one-two between Gary Rowell and “Pop” Robson had set up a great chance for Stan Cummins, the latter failed to get any power behind his shot, and Steve Hardwick saved comfortably.
The Mags defence then had a scare, for when Alan Brown crossed from the right, Stuart Boam intercepted just ahead of Robson, at the expense of a corner which came to nothing. But it was our visitors who continued to look the more dangerous up front, and a neat three-man move involving Withe, Cassidy and Alan Shoulder, ended with the latter sending in a curling effort which beat Turner, but just cleared the upright. Then following a cross from Withe, Alan Shoulder sent in a header which Chris Turner collectively comfortably.
Then just before the break, we looked as if we might break the deadlock. Shaun Elliott was obstructed by Cassidy, and when Jeff Clarke’s free-kick was fisted clear by Steve Hardwick, the ball travelled only as far as Joe Hinnigan. Unfortunately, the full-back was unable to direct his shot on target as the first-half ended goalless, perhaps a fair reflection of proceedings so far.
Keeping the pressure on
We began the second period brightly, and nearly grabbed the lead in the forty-seventh minute. David Barton fouled Alan Brown just outside the box, and when Kevin Arnott curled the free-kick round the Newcastle defensive wall, Steve Hardwick pulled off a brilliant save, tipping the ball over the top. Then when The Mags threatened again, Turner had to react smartly to collect a through ball, though we then gained a free-kick, when Peter Withe was pulled up for a foul on the keeper.
Play continued to swing from end to end, though without either side really looking capable of the killer touch, while the game continued to be punctuated by free-kicks. And when one of these went the way of the visitors after a handball offence by Jeff Clarke, Tommy Cassidy’s effort was well off-target.
Chris Turner then dealt capably with another Newcastle free-kick, then just past the hour-mark, we looked to have forced a breakthrough. A centre from Kevin Arnott was headed behind, and when Arnott himself took the kick, Alan Brown’s flick-on was turned behind for another corner. This produced more or less a repeat of the previous move, but this time, Brown’s header was cleared off the line by Stuart Boam.
It looked as if we now starting to get on top, though when Gary Rowell went down in the box, the only award was a corner. But Newcastle were far from out of it, and Tommy Cassidy came within inches of giving his side the lead, with a well-hit effort which just cleared Turner’s upright. Then following a Peter Cartwright corner, Boam poked the ball narrowly wide.
We then came close again to grabbing the lead, in the sixty-ninth minute. Stan Cummins went on a fine run which took him past two defenders, and his cross was flicked goal wards by “Pop”. But the ball struck Steve Hardwick, who seemingly knew little about it, and was cleared off the line by Terry Hibbitt.
Then, four minutes later, Roker Park erupted, when we took the lead, even though it was possibly against the run of play so far. Alan Brown and Kevin Arnott combined well, and the latter’s cross was flicked on by Robson to Stan Cummins, who had the easiest of tasks to slot the ball home from close range. Cue delirium, amongst the home faithful at least.
Newcastle were clearly stung by this setback, and they fought back strongly. But we nearly extended our lead when Alan Brown beat two defenders and played in Cummins, who cross was collected in rather timely fashion by Hardwick as Elliott threatened.
The Mags however, kept plugging away, and subjected us under a fair bit pressure as they sought to retrieve the game. Though thanks to some sound defensive work, and some assured handling by Turner, we held on for a hard-fought, but still memorable and vital win.
A Great Victory on the Road to Promotion
This great victory also avenged our New Year’s Day defeat at Sid James, and also saw us move above “The Old Foe” into fifth place in The Second Division. It was also the start of a 100% record for us over Easter, for further wins during this vital period at Wrexham and Shrewsbury put us top of the pile for the first time in the campaign, as it began to reach it’s rather gripping conclusion.
Our bid to reach The First Division was then checked slightly with successive draws v Orient & Bristol Rovers, which saw us slip down to third, but we then got back on track with a rather memorable 5-0 win v Watford, in front of the MOTD cameras at Roker.
The First Division was certainly beckoning!
Promotion could have then been sealed with victory in the last away game at Cardiff, but a 1-1 draw kept us on tenterhooks, and perhaps brought back memories of the previous season’s final-day trip to Wales, when even in spite of victory against Wrexham, we still failed to make it back to The First Division. However, we need not have worried, for we won a game we had in hand, versus FA Cup winners West Ham in front of nearly 50,000 at Roker, to clinch a return to “The Promised Land”, as runners-up to Champions Leicester.
Cue more delirium!
As for The Mags, after having appeared certainties for promotion themselves for most of the 1979-80 campaign, they eventually had to settle for ninth place in the Second Division, ten points behind ourselves.
It surely doesn’t get much better than that!