Season 80/81 was a bizarre affair.
We just avoided relegation with a fine win at Liverpool on the final day of the season; the chairman sacked Ken Knighton and Frank Clarke with four games of the season remaining; we bought a centre forward in Tom Ritchie, who delighted in scoring against us but could hardly score a goal for us; and had a “silky” Argentinian midfielder in Claudio Marangoni who looked the part in pre-match warm-ups, but could hardly keep up with play when the game kicked off - and upon his return to Argentina, he was voted footballer of the year!
We also had the marmite Tom Cowie as chairman - infamous for not funding the purchase of John Aldridge for a pittance.
All that said, we played at times some attractive football, and our goals against would have seen us 8th in that particular table that season.
Arguably our signing of Bolton centre half Sam Allardyce for £150,000 to bolster our defence helped our cause, but with Chris Turner in goal & Joe Bolton, Elliott, Hinnigan, Hindmarch, Chisholm and Whitworth also appearing in defence, we were quite well served.
With a blunderbuss of a centre forward in John Hawley and some cracking talent in the shape of Arnott, Cummins, Pop Robson, Brown, and Gary Rowell, we scored 52 goals that season and only failed to score in 11 games throughout the season.
We had gotten off to a canny start following our promotion, with good wins at Roker against Everton, Leeds, and Palace and two cracking wins away at Man City and Leicester (both of which I witnessed) as well as credible draws against Man Utd and Spurs.
I boarded the train at Newcastle with friends, in boisterous fettle given our start to the season, for my first ever visit (despite being a regular away traveller from the early 70’s) to Highbury.
The train contained a number of Sunderland fans given it was not a “special”, which was usually a good indicator of a sizeable away support. We were able to get out of Kings Cross without being herded up by the Police to await the “special” - and had good crack with some Arsenal fans... and a few expensive beers, making our way to Highbury.
A noisy travelling support upward of 5,000 had made the trip and the noise we generated that day, somewhat silenced the Highbury crowd. Due to a clash of shorts, the team wore black shorts with the navy-blue away strip, I thought it looked a little odd but hey, its not a fashion show is it?
Our team that day was Turner in goal, a back four of Whitworth, Allardyce, Elliott and Bolton. Arnott, Chisholm, Rowell and Cummins out wide played in midfield, with Alan Brown and John Cooke up front. Pop Robson was the sub.
Arsenal included Graham Rix, Stapleton, Hollins, Sansom, Talbot and the very effective Willie Young. Arsenal also had Alan Sunderland in their line up that day, just to confuse commentators and tv viewers, as well as Mike Gatting’s brother Steve, who would go on to have a canny career in football management and make a very good living from the game.
The game was an end-to-end affair and we played some slick football on the deck that day. Arnott stroked some lovey passes around the park and seemed unhurried by the hurly burly of the game, as he did what he did best. Stan Cummins was his impish self and created a bit of a buzz every time he got the ball out wide. Brown had pace to burn and never stopped running up front, whether it was chasing defenders down or chasing lost causes - he sometimes lacked end-product, but I always liked his wholehearted attitude, as well as his pace. He was also a completely different option to John Hawley.
A nice bit of skill by Rix set Gatting up for the first goal and the Gooner’s went in 1-0 up at half time. I think most Sunderland fans in the crowd that day probably thought we were a tad unlucky to be a goal down at the break and still fancied us to get something from the game.
The game continued end to end in the second half, but our speed and passing on the break was worrying the Arsenal defence. Rowell played a sharp pass to Arnott who struck a precision rocket first time from 30 yards, George Wood in the Arsenal goal made a good save, but the ricochet landed at the feet of Rowell, who had never stopped running from making his pass, and he despatched the ball into the goal with aplomb.
Arsenal were looking nervous, and their crowd were getting on to them as we continued to move the ball at pace. Whitworth (always a good passer from defence) played a pinpoint ball to Cummins down our right flank, he outpaced his defender and then stepped inside to place a neat shot past Woods. 2-1 up and flying, we away fans were singing our hearts out for the Lads and anticipating “yet another victory on the road”- who said the first division was going to be a tough ask?
Arsenal did apply some pressure coming into the latter stages of the game and the impressive Willie Young outjumped Allardyce to plant a powerful header beyond Turner from a corner to tie up the game 2-2, and that was how it finished. We were 8th in the table at full time and had for the best part of this game showed the North London aristocrats how to play an attractive game on the break. Our away support had provided loud and tuneful support as well as rapturous applause to our team at the end of the game, what could go wrong from here?
We were not as lucky getting out of the ground after the game, being held back and then herded in a direction we really did not want to go in. After a protracted journey back to Kings Cross, we enjoyed a few beers on a lively Newcastle bound train with talk of Europe and a good cup run in the air.
What went wrong was we proceeded to lose 9 out of the next 11 games and looked odds on for relegation at the end of the year. Thankfully a smattering of points picked up at home and two wins out of the final four games with Mick Docherty (Tommy Docherty’s son) as caretaker manager meant we finished in 17th place, two points above relegated Norwich in 20th place.
My first trip to Highbury had been an experience, and whilst it was never my favourite away trip, in three subsequent visits to the Gooner’s I have yet to see us beaten. Now how do I get my hands on a ticket for the Emirates?