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Sunderland Managers of the 1980s: Part 1 - Ken Knighton & Alan Durban

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In the first part of a three part series, Roker Report’s Mark Wood looks at the two men who guided Sunderland through the early part of the 1980s.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photocall
The Sunderland Squad for 1980-1, included Ken Knighton signings Sam Allardyce and “Pop” Robson
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher, unemployment, Live Aid and the Roker End sliced down to a third of it’s capacity. In the 1980s Sunderland started at the top, reached a cup final, dropped two leagues and then went all the way back up in a decade that epitomised contrasts on and off the field.

Let’s start at the beginning...


Ken Knighton (1979-1981)

1980 - when John Lennon was shot and killed, Mount St Helens erupted, and Sunderland gained promotion back to the old Division 1. They did this in Ken Knighton’s first full season of management anywhere.

He was first team coach to Billy Elliot’s team that just failed to gain promotion by a whisker the previous year and, when Elliott was surprisingly not given the job in the summer of 1979, the Sunderland board made a somewhat disjointed effort to recruit a big name such as Bobby Robson. When this came to nothing they again surprised everyone by giving the job to Knighton.

He recruited some crucial players, such as ‘Pop’ Robson and Stan Cummins with the team putting together a run at just the right time to take third place (an automatic promotion spot at that time) with the final match of the season.

Knighton’s stock was high with Sunderland fans at the end of that season, but it was a different story in the boardroom. Local businessman Tom Cowie took over as chairman from Keith Collings just a few weeks after promotion had been gained, and his policy of running the club on tight purse strings came to shape what ambition the club showed in the following 5 year stint in the top flight.

Knighton was ambitious in what he wanted Sunderland to do in the top division, and wanted to recruit some big name players. He wanted to spend a club record one million pounds on a player, but was always frustrated by Cowie who, although a Sunderland fan, firmly wore his businessman’s head when it come to the club’s coffers.

Despite this, Knighton was able to recruit some less ambitious signings, including the no-nonsense Sam Allardyce and, when the new season kicked off, the team got off to a flier and were top after two games. A newly promoted team could not, of course, keep that pace up, but although sliding gradually down the table, Sunderland never fell into the relegation zone at any time during Knighton’s management.

Throughout the season rumours that Knighton and Cowie were not working well together made their way back to the fans and players alike, undermining any solid foundations that a newly promoted club might be trying to set down. Knighton knew that his bad relationship with the chairman would be his undoing in the end - it was only a question of when. Once the team went on a bad run, without a win in nine games, Tom Cowie decided that manager had no goodwill in “the bank” and fired him, with a couple of games of the season left.

Sunderland famously won 1-0 at Liverpool on the final day of the season to secure their top flight status. When you look at Ken Knighton’s overall record at Sunderland, gaining promotion and largely securing their status in the top flight in the first season back, in any era he was desperately unlucky to lose his job.

Paul Days Collection
Ken Knighton with the Promotion Winning Sunderland team of 1979 - 1980
Photo by Topix/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Alan Durban (1981-1984)

Roker Report recently had an article looking at ‘what if?’ players recently. For fans of the 80’s generation, many credit Alan Durban as building the ‘what if?’ team. But more on that later.

Durban had gained promotion to the old First Division with Stoke the year before Sunderland had gone up, and had managed to consolidate them there in his first two seasons. He gained experience at managing at the top level, and also acquired a somewhat not wholly deserved reputation for producing defensive teams. He brought in a few players before the season started, amongst them a much sought after 18 year old Ally McCoist from St Johnstone.

Alongside the established players such as Shaun Elliott, Gary Rowell and Stan Cummins, Durban added Ian Munroe, Ally McCoist, and promoted from the youth team Nick Pickering, Barry Venison and Colin West. Gary Rowell said that Durban “loved nothing more than a 1-0 win’”. But if there is one thing he liked nearly as much, it was bringing young players into the team; either through the youth system or bought, as in the case of McCoist and, later on, Paul Bracewell.

Funds for new players as ever were tight, as Tom Cowie still ran the club on an austere budget. Stories came out from the training ground of players being told to take showers rather than baths, and the players’ Christmas Turkeys cancelled as chairman Tom counted every penny.

Furthermore after a promising start to Durban’s reign, Sunderland really struggled badly and, towards the season end, appeared odds-on to be relegated before a Colin West goal fest saved them.

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Paul Bracewell in the first of his three spells playing for Sunderland
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Furthermore this was the season when the Roker End was found to be structurally vulnerable and needed urgent repair. Rather than rebuild and modernise it as has been the course of other ageing grounds such as Anfield, the board took the course of demolishing two thirds of it and saving what was left. The capacity of the ground was reduced from 48,000 to 35,000 after work was completed. This was the beginning of the end for Roker Park.

For the next season Durban added Ian Atkins who would be become a key player in the next two years, and as the team struggled again he brought in a couple of experienced heads in Leighton James and Frank Worthington. Meanwhile, Durban and his coaches set about making the team more defensive and a tighter unit from the attacking side that Knighton had left. An improvement in the early months of the year saw the team safe come the end of the season.

In summer 1983 in came two quality midfielders in Paul Bracewell and Mark Proctor, but to fund the moves Durban had to sell Ally McCoist to Rangers. Never the less, manager and fans alike felt this was the strongest Sunderland team in decades.

An indifferent start to the season was followed by an upturn in form over the next few months. The team notched up some good wins and for a team that had largely struggled over the previous three years, Sunderland were a comfortable 12th in the league at Christmas. Everyone felt that Sunderland were finally close to a side that could hold their own in the top flight.

However, the board were becoming impatient and, after a defeat in the FA Cup third round, Durban knew - like Ken Knighton before - him that he was on borrowed time. After a further spell of games without a win he was sacked, much to the shock of fans and players alike.

Of the side Durban built, Paul Bracewell went on to win two League Titles and England Caps at Everton; Barry Venison won two League Titles at Liverpool and England caps at Newcastle and Nick Pickering already had one England cap and won the FA cup in 1987 in a famous win for Coventry; Ally McCoist went on to score 250 goals and won multiple Scottish Premier League titles along with 60 Scotland caps at Rangers.

Chris Turner left for Manchester United, Colin West became a prolific scorer at Watford on the end of John Barnes’s crosses and won the Scottish Premier League at Rangers, and Lee Chapman scored goals aplenty for Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest before moving to Leeds - where he won the League title.

Soccer - Canon League Division One - Arsenal v Sunderland - Highbury Stadium
Sunderland’s Colin West pats the head of goalscorer Ian Atkins, watched by Gary Rowell (r)
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images