Although Alan Brown was the man in charge during Sunderland’s first two relegations from the top flight, he was still an institution at the club.
First time around, he arrived during a time the club was reeling from financial scandals that Brown was key to cleaning up. After relegation, we would eventually return to the First Division in 1964 but Brown left to join Sheffield Wednesday.
He returned to Roker four years later only to be relegated for a second time, and because he had led the charge to promotion previously, it was decided Brown would be the man to go back up once again. This time things didn’t quite go to plan, and by November 1972 we found ourselves 14th in Division Two.
The official statement read that Alan Brown was “terminated by mutual consent” and Sunderland were looking for our sixth manager in 13 years.
The inevitable speculation on who would be next began almost immediately with the likes of Billy Bingham, Brian Clough, Len Ashurst, Tommy Docherty, Dave Mackay, Charlie Hurley, Brian Doyle, Harry Potts and Jimmy Hagan all linked with the job, but it would be trainer Billy Elliott who would buy the club directors time by taking over as caretaker manager.
Elliott’s first test as caretaker came in the form of Vic Crowe’s Aston Villa at Roker Park – Villa were riding the crest of a wave. After promotion from Division Three the previous season, Villa were 3rd in Division Two and travelled North full of confidence.
It was our biggest crowd of the season at Roker Park as 18,717 were in attendance, signalling the optimism following a change at the top and they didn’t have to wait long for the opening goal.
With less than a minute on the clock, Bruce Rioch played a defence-splitting pass from the halfway line, but unfortunately for the future Arsenal and Middlesbrough manager, it was beyond his own defence and found Billy Hughes who ran on to the ball at the Fulwell End and took it round the keeper to slot home.
The opening period of the game was all one way, as described in the Birmingham Daily Post:
Sunderland, a high-pressure team to contend with at the best of times, were newly managerless and eager to prove themselves, and for 20 minutes Villa were outplayed. Sunderland passed the ball about as if they had magnetic boots and chased and tackled relentlessly.
And in typical Sunderland fashion, Villa equalised against the run of play when Rioch atoned for his earlier error by putting the West Midlands side on level terms. It could have got worse for the Lads as the ball was cleared from the goal line on more than one occasion before half time.
We would have to wait until the hour mark to regain the lead when Ian Porterfield chipped a delicate free-kick from the left hand side which Bobby Kerr ran onto and with a deft header into the far corner, made it 2-1 to Sunderland.
Just as they had done previously, Aston Villa fought back and less than ten minutes later were back on level terms once again. This time it was future Aston Villa and Leicester City manager Brian Little to get on the scoresheet with a looping header over Jimmy Montgomery in the Sunderland goal.
Billy Elliott wouldn’t win a game as caretaker manager over the next four weeks until a new manager was appointed - and created a little bit of history.
Saturday 4th November 1972
Sunderland 2-2 Aston Villa
(Hughes 1’, Kerr 62’ - Rioch 20’, Little 67’)
Sunderland: Montgomery, Malone, Coleman, Horswill, Pitt, Porterfield, Kerr, Hughes, Watson, Chambers, Tueart Substitute not used: McGiven
Aston Villa: Cumbes, Gidman, Aitken, Rioch, Nicholl, Turnbull, Little, Ross, Evans, Vowden, Anderson Substitute not used: Brown