It was late April 1985; Sunderland AFC were facing an all-too-familiar scenario: a battle for First Division survival.
The 1984/85 campaign had promised so much at one stage. We stood in ninth place just before Christmas, looking good value - at least - for mid-table security. Our fortunes in the Milk Cup were looking promising also, and after triumphing over Nottingham Forest and Spurs in quick succession, albeit after replays, it seemed that we may be on course for our first taste of Wembley glory since that momentous day in 1973.
We did of course make it to Wembley, by disposing of Watford and Chelsea in the quarter and semi-finals respectively. However, by that time, our league form had deteriorated rather alarmingly, so much so that relegation was beginning to look a real possibility. So, would then a Milk Cup Final success be a catalyst for a change in fortunes?
Unfortunately not. We failed to do ourselves justice against Norwich at Wembley; an own-goal winner for the Canaries and a missed penalty on our part summed the game up rather well. To compound matters further, the Wembley setback seemed to exacerbate our rather worrying league form and position, for our following eight league games produced just one win, at fellow strugglers Coventry, while we’d managed only a paltry two goals during this worrying run. Consequently, it would come as no real surprise that we slipped into the bottom three.
Our next engagement couldn’t have been tougher, either. It was a trip to Old Trafford.
Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United side stood second in the First Division prior to our visit, and though they’d more or less conceded the First Division title to Everton, they were still hoping to at least end the season as runners-up. They were also on something of a “revenge mission”, having lost 2-3 in a rather epic encounter at Roker the previous November. Clearly, there was a daunting task approaching rapidly over our horizon.
Our side showed two changes to that beaten at WBA three days earlier, when Gary Bennett came in for Gordon Armstrong, who’d made his debut at The Hawthorns, while Shaun Elliott replaced Paul Lemon.
So on an overcast afternoon at Old Trafford, there were just under 39,000 present, including (of course) a fair-sized contingent from Wearside.
The first real chance came for the home side, when a neat move saw Mark Hughes break free into our box, but fortunately his eventual cross failed to pick out either Bryan Robson or Jesper Olsen, who were both lurking rather menacingly. Our first real opportunity came following a neat move involving Gary Bennett and David Hodgson, which presented a chance for Nick Pickering, though United keeper Gary Bailey was alert to the danger, and was able to dive out in time and to the ball.
Then it was the home side’s turn to attack; Jesper Olsen picked out the overlapping Bryan Robson with a neat pass - though the United skipper’s powerful effort had the sting taken out of it by Gordon Chisholm - before the ball traveled harmlessly through to Chris Turner. United then gained a free-kick, which led to them breaking the deadlock. The ball was played forward, Alan Brazil headed it down and Barry Venison made a hash of his attempted clearance - Bryan Robson was quick enough to capitalize on this blunder, succeeding where he’d failed previously, by curling the ball beyond Chris Turner’s despairing drive and just inside the upright - his side had a sixth-minute lead.
Not really the start we’d have wanted then. However, we responded positively to this early setback. Clive Walker twice came close to an equalizer, firstly when he fired a low drive just wide of the upright, then when he sent in a long-range effort, which was capably dealt with by United ‘keeper Gary Bailey.
Gordon Chisholm was then booked for a challenge on fellow Scot Gordon Strachan and, from the free-kick, Chris Turner went down to save well from John Gidman. Then on the quarter-hour mark, we almost drew level. A promising run by David Hodgson was eventually halted by Jesper Olsen, but the Dane sliced his attempted clearance. The ball looped goalwards and Gary Bailey, who was off his line, had to back-pedal rather smartly to turn the ball over the bar.
Just a mere sixty seconds later, however, we were back on level terms. Again David Hodgson was involved - the former Boro man found Nick Pickering with a neat ball and the youngster cut inside, beating Gary Bailey with a fine effort from twenty-two yards, much to the delight of our travelling fans.
United should really have gone back in front shortly afterwards though, for after Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen had combined well on the left, the latter’s accurate centre looked like an open invitation for Norman Whiteside. Inexplicably, the United youngster, who’d been guilty of a bad miss in the game at Roker, failed to make contact completely unmarked in front of goal. A bit of a let-off!
Then we were guilty of passing up a similar opportunity. Following the award of a free-kick for a foul by Kevin Moran on Ian Wallace, David Hodgson’s inch-perfect cross picked out Gordon Chisholm, who miskicked right in front of goal, the ball travelling harmlessly through to a no-doubt-relieved Gary Bailey.
Sunderland may have been battling formidably but it was United who ended the half the stronger side, and they looked to have regained the lead when Shaun Elliott was adjudged to have brought down Mark Hughes inside the area. It seemed a rather harsh decision from our point of view... however, justice appeared to be duly done as Norman Whiteside continued a poor performance by placing his spot-kick against the upright. Chris Turner then blocked Gordon Strachan’s follow-up effort with his legs, before the ball was scrambled away.
It had been an entertaining first forty-five for our travelling faithful, despite the Red Devils having edged proceedings so far. What then lay in store in the second period? Well, United picked up where they left off and nearly restored their lead just after the restart. Peter Daniel had been forced to concede a corner, Jesper Olsen’s inswinger picked out Kevin Moran, whose powerful header was superbly saved by Chris Turner. Then, when the pendulum of play swung to the other end, a corner from the right delivered by Clive Walker found Gordon Chisholm, whose header was blocked just short of the line.
We then had a rather an incredible let-off. David Hodgson was pulled up for a foul on John Gidman; the free-kick taken by Gidman himself found Kevin Moran, whose header struck the upright, before being scrambled behind by Turner. Then from the corner, Turner once more excelled himself, when he collected Moran’s powerful headed effort, in what was more or less a carbon-copy of his previous save from the same United player.
Then in the seventy-first minute, and somewhat against the run of play, we edged in front. Nick Pickering, having netted our equalizer, now turned provider. Having been picked out by Ian Wallace, Pickering held off one or two challenges before crossing to find Walker - our hat-trick hero in the season’s earlier meeting - who gleefully hammered the ball home, to spark untold jubilation amongst the travelling fans behind the goal. Were we now on course for an unlikely, memorable, invaluable win?
Perhaps not surprisingly, this setback stung United somewhat and as such they subjected us aggressively to a spell of fierce pressure. After Olsen had forced another great save from Chris Turner, it came as no real surprise when the home side subsequently drew level. It all stemmed from a rather hasty clearance from Hodgson, which led to a corner and from Olsen’s in swinger, Moran finally got the better of Turner - though the keeper was perhaps a bit unlucky in his efforts to keep the ball out. Rather deflating, it felt like we were more-or-less back to square one.
Yet just two minutes later, the game may have transformed from a memorable encounter to one that was simply unforgettable. We would’ve regained the lead in the nick of time... if Walker hadn’t sent his shot across the face of goal from a good position.
Ultimately, the game ended 2-2. It had been a fine afternoon’s entertainment and a hard-earned point, somewhat against the odds. Sadly however, it was to be the last point we’d collect in 1984-85, for our last three games (two at home to Aston Villa and Ipswich and one away to Leicester) all ended in defeat, sealing our rather sad but somewhat inevitable fate.
It was back to The Second Division for Sunderland, what after five uneasy years in the top flight and, not surprisingly, the close season of 1985 saw change at Roker. Len Ashurst was replaced as manager by Lawrie McMenemy (perhaps the less said about that particular appointment the better), while one or two players were also to depart. Most notably Chris Turner, whose heroics during 1984-85 had deservedly earned him our Player of the Year award. Indeed, his inspired performance at Old Trafford had not gone unnoticed by Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson. As such, it was no real surprise that in August 1985, Turner was off to the red part of Manchester.
Perhaps an inevitable consequence of relegation that we lost of our undoubted stars, though Turner at least did leave behind memories of one or two better moments at Roker Park.