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The 1980s: When following Sunderland around the country was fun!

Join Lars Knutsen as he recalls his favourite era supporting Sunderland - the 1980s. What are your best memories of following the Lads up and down the country?

Sunderland Photo by Staff/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

These are very hard times to be a Sunderland fan. We currently occupy our lowest finishing league position ever as a result of collecting just two points from the last four competitive matches, and as the Roker Rapport podcasters have so eloquently recently stated, there seems to be little hope at present with the club up for sale and no plan evident.

The current owners’ apparent goal is to stabilise us financially; in times of an unprecedented world disease crisis, many of the things we trust for our livelihood and wellbeing have been ripped away from under us, and we look to our local community for hope. That for so many Wearsiders is our beloved football club.

I would add though that we do somehow need to be optimists to support a team like Sunderland. Our owners, despite their unpopularity, have ensured that the club is debt-free at a time when some Lancashire teams have been in football meltdown: Bury was liquidated then Bolton and Wigan have gone through the traumas of administration. There are many clubs which are not prospering in the current unprecedented circumstances.

Our manager, Phil Parkinson, has actually tasted success. I have previously written that friends here in Essex worship the ground he walks upon because of what he achieved for Colchester United in the third tier from early 2003 to mid-2006. He saved them relegation in the first season, stabilised the team and in 2005-6 they finished in second place, thereby gaining an unlikely promotion to the Championship, despite having the lowest average attendance of the division before resigning in June 2006, bound for Hull City with a year left to run on his contract.

Yeovil Town v Colchester United
Phil looking fresh faced during his spell with Colchester
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

So it is another season, and yet another clear-out of players. But I will say that our manager appears to know how to operate and recruit at this level. If we do recruit well in the rest of July and into August, and the team gets off to a good start next season, preferably in front of us fans, the climate of pessimism will change, and again the chant “We are Sunderland, we are Sunderland” will sound from the terraces.

Many of the writers in these pages are veering towards looking back to happier times for the Black Cats. For me that was the 1980s: a decade remembered primarily by football fans for terrible matchday food, mediocre supporter experiences, warm beer, CB radios, players with mullets, blonde highlights and other weird but notable hairstyles, quite shocking hooliganism as well as chronic underfunding of many teams including Sunderland AFC.

We need to remember though that despite the highs of the Eighties, we did slip to 12th spot in Division Three in September 1987 after 5 games without a win. But that team under Denis Smith were back in pole position a month later and never looked back. We had some natural goal scorers in Gates and Gabbiadini and were deservedly promoted in Spring, 1988.

Despite my going to the Sunderland games in every round but the FA Cup final in 1973, the Eighties probably represented my peak time as a Sunderland fan and spectator. Having landed my first permanent job after studying, I was earning but not yet married and mainly attending away games. This is because that job was at Glaxo Group Research in Ware, Herts. which meant that living in Hertford provided excellent road and rail communications so that travel to London and the Midlands was very convenient.

Soccer - Lancashire League - Manchester City A v Stoke City A Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

I did get to some special home games on visits back home to the north east, but for some reason they do not stand out in my mind in the same way as some of the quite amazing away performances I witnessed.

They were not all wins of course, notably the September 1982 8-0 thrashing at the hands of Graham Taylor’s resurgent Watford team which eventually finished as runners-up. Curiously that same team which leaked the 4 goals in each half to the Hornets managed to go 6 games without conceding later the same season.

Many games were in fact exciting wins and the early eighties saw an unbeaten spell at White Hart Lane, the closest First Division team to Hertford, which included a memorable 2-1 win over Spurs in the 1984-85 League Cup run. It was always a unique feeling of belonging to meet up with the red and white army along with friends from Sunderland for those away fixtures.

So many teams were chronically underfunded then. The excellent 2018 book by David Snowdon, about manager Alan Durban’s time at the helm of the Black Cats, entitled: “Give Us Tomorrow Now: Alan Durban’s Mission Impossible” - a very appropriate - is amazingly detailed and helps the reader to relive those years. No transfer window, one substitute and with Tom Cowie as chairman, the Welshman’s life was never easy.

Although the Premiership, founded in 1992, is now regarded as the best league in the world, I somehow doubt that the First Division was seen in that way in those days. Competitive and exciting, yes, but generally under-marketed with few overseas players; the Italian and Spanish leagues were clearly at a higher technical standard. The EPL is now a smooth and well-oiled moneymaking machine, ensuring that games are presented well and shown wherever in the world one happens to be. That was emphatically not the case in the 1980s.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Arsenal v Sunderland Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

And then there was the “direct” style of football embraced by some clubs. I recall that Sunderland’s failed but notable ex-manager, Howard Wilkinson was at Sheffield Wednesday from 1983–1988 where his team practiced the long-ball game of “percentage football”, of which the late and highly respected Jack Charlton was also an exponent at Newcastle from 1984–1985. He maintained the same style of play when managing the Ireland National Team for a decade from 1996. And who can forget Wimbledon under Dave Bassett where Vinnie Jones had his first spell from 1986 - 1989; Bassett also practiced this long ball game at Watford and Sheffield United.

Several football teams thereby treated the ball “as if it had an infectious disease”. They booted it up to the opposition box and picked up rebounds from the opposing centre-backs. Not cultured football, but national teams Ireland, as mentioned, and Denmark practiced this type of game with notable success, the latter winning the 1992 European Championship with that direct, not tippy-tappy style. Charlton, according to former player Chris Waddle who was caught dinking the ball around in training with his teammates on Tyneside was told: “I want you to play one-twos with God”.

Another important issue at the time was that many people who called themselves supporters almost never saw their team play and did not provide any revenue to their chosen club.

The football support in areas along the A10 corridor in Hertfordshire was mainly dominated by those who identified as Spurs and Arsenal fans and was home to many of their players. But many of those I worked with when questioned said that they were too busy to go to live games, so their support was never “monetised” as it is today through BSkyB.

It is important to consider that live football on TV had not become a thing at that stage and almost all games kicked off at 3.00 PM on Saturdays. Many of those matches did not even have camera crews present, unless featured on the “Match of the Day” schedule of just a few top games.

Sunderland legend Brian Clough, then Forest manager’s comment when there was a mass resignation from the Football League to form the Premiership was: “What we need is bums on seats on a Saturday afternoon”.

Football has clearly changed enormously; it appeals to the family market these days and the whole matchday experience has been hugley enhanced. The Premier League and Sky Sports is a moneymaking machine which is masterful at raking in cash, so now all clubs at the top enjoy major revenues to the extent that gate receipts are much less important than they were in the 1980s, and many footballers are true entertainers on rock star salaries. There were also some really rubbish football grounds back then, so much has improved.

Sunderland Manager Len Ashurst and Norwich City Manager Ken Brown

The Black Cats were promoted in 1980 and stayed in the First Division until 1985. Alan Durban held the SAFC manager’s post from 1981 to 1984 before being replaced by Len Ashurst, who arrived from Cardiff City without a contract. Durban was not known for an out and out attacking style of football, but I got it at the time; which Sunderland fan really wants to give away the first goal in a game, especially away from home? That means we started off with a tight defence in away matches, not unlike the style of Clough teams. Durban had good mentors.

That cagey style early on was clearly the intention for the opening game of the 1981-82 season at Portman Road, which coincided was also the introduction of three points for a win in the English leagues; I attended with my boss, a Tractor Boys fan. It was a terrific game and we were 1-0 up at half-time, thanks to a Tom Ritchie goal. I am sure that Durban would have wanted it to stay that way, but Mick Buckley scored twice in a breathless 9 minutes, with a reply from John Wark squeezed in between. At 3-1 up I really thought that those first three points were in the bag, but Ipswich were a quality team that eventually finished second in the league. A player who was set to play a major part at Roker Park later in the decade, Eric Gates, hit us with a brace that pegged the score back to 3-3; great entertainment despite the draw.

Another game I remember clearly was our visit to the Victoria Ground in March 1983. I drove the 150-odd miles from Hertford to Stoke in my Austin Mini with a CB radio fitted - that “technology” was needed for directions to the ground. As mentioned, football was undermarketed, there was no internet so generally no advance planning was required, so as a supporter one could just show up, pay cash and enter through a turnstile. The team that day was Turner in goal, Nichol, Munro, Atkins, Chisholm, Pickering, Venison, Rowell, West, James and Cummins.

Many of those players were mainstays of the Sunderland teams of the Eighties, we did not suffer the same large turnover of players or the annual clear-out we are seeing these days.

Chris Turner Sunderland 1985 Photo Allsport/Getty Images

The game was a true Durban performance by the away side. Stoke had some talented players such as Mickey Tomas, Brendan O’Callaghan, Sammy McIlroy and later Sunderland stalwart Paul Bracewell, so we were put under a lot of pressure. We soaked it up well though and the single goal came as I recall from a spectacular 8-man move finished by Gary Rowell greeted by much rejoicing from the red and white army. It was a great journey home.

Recalling the 1980s with Sunderland does show how the team had some solid years in the top league, slumped down two divisions and made a comeback. There is still hope, despite the current seemingly desperate circumstances at the Stadium of Light.