There’s been a lot of talk over recent years about the task of turning around the gigantic tanker that is Sunderland Association Football Club when it clearly isn’t heading in the right direction, and those that have attempted and failed in that endeavour.
Well, back in 1972, that was the task that was handed to the Northumberland-born, 42-year-old Bob Stokoe, who was then managing Blackpool and had his side at the right end of the second division as well as in the quarter-final of the League Cup.
He replaced the institution that was Alan Brown as manager - to read more of the details of that managerial change, included the plethora of names linked with the job, read more here.
The size of the new manager’s task wasn’t to be underestimated, ahead of Stokoe’s first game in charge, Sunderland had won once in the previous twelve games and slipped to 19th in Division Two - two points clear of Brighton and Hove Albion who sat at the foot of the table and level on points with Cardiff City who occupied the remaining relegation spot.
The anticipation of Stokoe’s first game as manager against league leaders Burnley added 5,000 spectators to the gate from the previous home game against Hull City, where 11,141 were present to witness a 1-1 draw.
Jimmy Adamson’s Burnley side were two points clear at the top and would eventually end up winning the title, so it was no disgrace that Stokoe’s Sunderland lost the fixture via the only goal of the game, coming from Paul Fletcher with just under twenty minutes left on the clock.
Next up, was what in those days were probably deemed a four-pointer, with still being two points for a win, down on the south coast at Portsmouth. Sunderland were still placed fourth from bottom on 15 points, and Pompey were tied on the same points sat third bottom on goal difference.
There was only one change from the side that suffered defeat at Roker to Burnley, midfielder Mick McGiven replaced striker John Lathan for a place the back in the starting XI, which meant Micky Horswill was moved into midfield and in the absence of a recognized target-man at the club, all five-foot four-inches of Bobby Kerr was moved up top.
This also meant that Bob Stokoe was persevering with an experiment at the back that had begun under caretaker manager Billy Elliott over in the interim period between the Alan Brown and Stokoe eras.
Dave Watson was Sunderland’s first £100,000 signing in the summer of 1970, beating our previous transfer record of £72,500 that was paid for Jim Baxter from Glasgow Rangers five years previously - when he was signed as a new centre-forward from Rotherham United.
His record at the South Yorkshire club wasn’t prolific, around a goal in every six games, and at Sunderland he had been an ever-present up top during 1971-72 but could only manage 13 goals. At the start of the 1972-73 season, he had been selected up front in all but two of the opening 15 league games, but hadn’t found the net - which led to Alan Brown’s dismissal and Billy Elliott deciding Watson’s future lay as a central defender.
Bob Stokoe continued the change of position for Dave Watson, and 36 minutes into his fifth game at the back, despite not scoring once all season as a striker, it was Watson who opened the scoring at Fratton Park with an accurate angled lob that dropped to his feet from a corner.
Just before half-time, however, Brian Lewis converted a penalty for Ron Tindall’s side to level things at 1-1, and ten minutes into the second half, against the run of play, they gained full advantage when Nicky Jennings gave Portsmouth a 2-1 lead coming up to the hour mark.
It was vital that Sunderland could come away with something from the game against fellow strugglers, and with twenty minutes left, Stokoe made his move. Defender John Tones replaced striker Brian Chambers and Dave Watson, with a goal under his belt, was moved back up front and the pressure began to build.
And with three minutes left on the clock, the relief was evident when Billy Hughes put Sunderland level at 2-2 with a lunging header after Ian Porterfield had crashed one off the crossbar.
There was now a chance that either side could take maximum points with only minutes remaining and in the final minute of the regulation 90 minutes, Bobby Kerr, as he so often did with 69 goals to his name during his Sunderland career, popped up to score the winner.
A great ball from Malone found Dennis Tueart out wide, who crossed for the smallest man on the pitch to win the game via a header and give Bob Stokoe his first all-important victory as manager of Sunderland as he described how much the squad needed the result:
My feelings ae for the players. They needed a break and it came in the dying minutes and now that they have got the winning scent again they will gain the right sort of confidence for Saturday’s match with Preston.
Their heads didn’t drop today as they did when trailing against Burnley, and I thought the last two goals were tremendous. They proved one of my beliefs that it is just as easy to win in the last minute as at any other time. We didn’t go there to defend.
Who knows, we may have turned it around eventually, but to potentially emphasize the significance of those late goals and victory at Fratton Park that got the ball rolling - we ended up finishing 6th in Division Two, while Portsmouth survived relegation by just two points.
Oh... and two days later, Sunderland were drawn to play Notts County away in the FA Cup 3rd round six weeks later.
Saturday 9th December, 1972
Football League Division Two
Portsmouth 2-3 Sunderland
[Lewis (pen) 42’, Jennings 54’ - Watson 36’, Hughes 87’, Kerr 89’]
Sunderland: Montgomery, Malone, Coleman, McGiven, Watson, Horswill, Porterfield, Kerr, Tueart, Chambers (Jones), Hughes
Portsmouth: Horn, Hand, Collins, Wilson, Stephenson, Munks, Piper, Reynolds, Hiron, McCann (Lewis), Jennings