Len Ashurst’s Sunderland had started the 1984-85 season relatively well and, when Manchester United came to town 37 years ago today, we were sitting in 11th place in the 22-team table.
Two consecutive defeats on the road had seen us drop points at Watford and West Ham – and consequently four places – but our home form was excellent. In the league up to this point we’d won five and drawn two, while in the League Cup we’d also won a further two and drawn one – the latter against Spurs a few days previously.
Ashurst had been buoyed by the words of Spurs manager Peter Shreeves after the game, who’d described Roker Park as ‘as difficult as any place to come’ to avoid defeat.
Ashurst told The Journal:
That has helped our cause this season. He paid us a great complement. Teams are going to have top play well here to beat us.
This is our biggest test. We can game a lot of standing by beating Manchester United. It would add two or three thousand to our average gate in future.
Skipper Shaun Elliott was missing for the clash against Ron Atkinson’s men, while Nick Pickering and Mark Proctor were both doubts. For United, Frank Stapleton and Alan Brazil had been banished to the reserves, leaving youngsters Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes to form a partnership up front.
The teams lined up like this:
Sunderland: Turner, Venison, Daniel, Bennett, Chisholm, Berry, Hodgson, Gayle, West, Cummins, Walker. Sub Lemon.
Manchester United: Bailey, Gidman, Duxbury, Moses, McQueen, Garton, Robson, Strachan, Hughes, Whiteside, Olsen (Muhren 76)
The game got off to a frantic start, with one of the most the most action-packed opening 45 minutes Roker Park would ever see.
After Venison’s long ranger went just over the bar, Whiteside hit the bar from close range before United stormed into a two-goal lead. First, the legendary Bryan Robson scored a long range daisy cutter which crept in at Turner’s left post – Turner should have done better – and then Robson’s long pass was flicked by Whiteside who put Hughes clear to finish with aplomb.
Quarter of an hour on the clock – 2-0 down.
Almost instantly, Sunderland pulled one back – straight from the kick off Clive Walker was put clean through, and slotted it past Gary Bailey.
And then, on the 18th minute, both sides were reduced to 10 men. A relatively innocuous looking clash between Dave Hodgson and Mark Hughes – who always defaulted to ‘playing the victim’ – saw referee John Key point to the tunnel. Hughes seemed to push Hodgson in the chest but little more, but regardless it was ten versus ten.
Duxbury had a goal disallowed for offside, before Sunderland were given the chance to equalise from the spot with three minutes of the second half remaining.
Gary Bennett, at his marauding best, was taken out by Bailey in the box as he attempted to lift the ball over the keeper’s head, and Walker levelled with his second of the game.
And, with a minute of the half remaining, Stan Cummins was poleaxed in the box by Gordon McQueen and Walker completed his hat-trick.
In comparison, the second half was a more sedate affair. Cummins forced a good save from Bailey, as did Colin West, but the score stayed 3-2 much to the delight of the 25,405 crowd.
After the game, Bryan Robson said:
We just couldn’t handle it out there. There’s no way we should have let a two-goal lead slip. But it was great for the crowd. Coming from the north east I know what that result would have meant.
Sunderland won only one more league game at Roker Park during the course of the season – a 1-0 February win over Stoke being the only glimmer of hope as the team ultimately slumped to relegation – a remarkable sequence of results after such a good start to the season on home turf.