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On This Day (30 Oct 1976): Caretaker boss Ian McFarlane ends Sunderland’s First Division rot

6 years and 209 days since their last First Division win, Sunderland’s longest ever wait in between top-flight victories ended on this day 45 years ago thanks to goals from Bob Lee and Billy Hughes at Coventry. 

In April 1970 a 1-0 win at Manchester City looked to have given Sunderland a major boost in their battle against relegation. The Lads fell short in their bid to beat the drop however and following a poor start upon their return to Division One for the 1976-77 season the wait for another success dragged on until autumn.

Despite the side looking good when he guided them to the Division Two title the season before, manager Bob Stokoe resigned following the slow start and so his assistant Ian McFarlane was installed as caretaker.

A Scot, he had previously coached at Sunderland in 1969 before returning under Stokoe towards the end of the promotion campaign and the trip to Coventry City was the second of what proved to be a total of seven games in charge.

The caretaker, as seen in Sunderland’s 1976-77 series of the match day programme

When Jimmy Adamson was appointed as the full term manager McFarlane was quickly dismissed, but on this date he oversaw an impressive performance from a beleaguered team. Writing in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, local reporter Neville Foulger was full of praise for Sunderland’s work rate in what was an entertaining affair.

The sides traded chances throughout the game, but Sunderland edged ahead in the early stages and were good value for the win.

It was Bob Lee that opened the scoring having made his Sunderland debut earlier in the month. Ray Train created the chance when he stole possession and split the defence with a through ball for Lee to run onto, and he lifted it over the head of Jim Blyth after 14 minutes to open his account for the club. There was another newcomer to the side at the other end of the pitch too, and in only his third game Barry Siddall had to produce several good saves.

Foulger felt that Coventry seemed sluggish following the half time interval, and that contributed to Sunderland’s second. It was still a top quality goal however, with Billy Hughes picking the ball up near the half-way line, weaving through a couple of tackles and hitting a cross shot past Blyth and into the net.

Sunderland’s match winner Billy Hughes, as seen in the the 1976-77 series of the match day programme

Hughes, and the man that replaced him as a late substitute, Bobby Kerr, were the only two players involved in the game that had also featured in the win at Manchester City in 1970, but as well as the old guard being represented there was also a future Sunderland man on the pitch in the second half.

After moving down from Scotland and impressing in the second string, home supporters had chanted for the introduction of substitute Ian Wallace and once on the pitch he almost repaid them with a goal on his first senior appearance in England.

After going extremely close with a header Wallace soon became a regular at Highfield Road before being sold to Nottingham Forest and later moving to Roker Park in 1984.

On this occasion it was his teammate Mick Ferguson that scored though when he climbed highest to a Mick Coop cross with just over five minutes left. It proved to be nothing more than a consolation, but Coventry would get their revenge for the 2-1 defeat on the final day of the season.

Coventry debutant Ian Wallace, featured in the 1984-85 series of Sunderland’s match day programme shortly after he arrived at Roker

Beating the Sky Blues resulted in a mini resurgence and it looked for a short period that McFarlane was turning things around. That proved to be short-lived however, and whilst the nature of Sunderland’s eventual relegation instead of Coventry on the final day of the season is well known, Adamson’s decision to introduce several homegrown players into the starting XI did see the club go agonisingly close to surviving.

It is ironic then that in this game Ferguson was the man to beat Siddall, who had taken over from Jimmy Montgomery as Sunderland’s number one, because Ferguson later replaced Monty in a youth role on Wearside almost 20 years later.

Appointed Youth Development Manager (although he was sometimes referred to as Director of Youth) at the start of the 1995-96 campaign, Ferguson was also Sunderland’s Football in the Community Manager and would regularly feature in the match day programmes of the time welcoming new prospects to the club.

Mick Ferguson joins Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell as Chris Lumsden signs on the dotted line

In 2021 the club is focusing on youth once more and big things are expected of some of Sunderland’s current crop of youngsters.

After falling into League One since our most recent top-flight win, the 2-0 defeat of Hull City in 2017, they are going to have to get shifting if the current record of six and a bit years in between top tier victories is not going to be extended but there is at least some hope – and that is what the win over Coventry on this date 45 years ago gave fans a fleeting sense of.


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