On a Wednesday evening at Roker Park 49 years ago today, an underwhelming crowd of just under 9,000 witnessed the first appearance of a man who would go on to be a permanent feature of Sunderland AFC in the 1970s.
Birtley lad Joe Bolton had come through the junior ranks, signing professionally on the day he turned 17 in the February of 1973. A talented left full-back, he was described as a “sturdy lad” and a “tough tackler” by Len Hetherington in a pre-match feature in that night’s Newcastle Evening Chronicle.
Sunderland had been on a bit of mixed run ahead of this fixture against already relegated Watford. After looking like serious promotion contenders in early March, when they were in third place, four points off top, they now sat fifth, after a 3-1 defeat away at Bristol City the previous Saturday.
With only two promotion places on offer, the season could have been considered a write-off and attendances at Roker Park were rarely above 15,000 in the latter part of that campaign.
The playoffs hadn’t yet been invented, and so in order to encourage middle-ranking teams to continue to compete right until the end of the season, an invitational competition was created by the Football League in 1970, sponsored by Watney Mann Breweries.
The two teams with the most goals scored from each division who were not being promoted or in European competition qualified for the following season’s Watney Cup. Cash prizes and TV revenues were on offer, and it had interesting rules such as offside only applying from the 18 yard line to encourage goalscoring.
So goals were the order of the day for Alan Brown’s men, and he looked to freshen up the starting eleven with the introduction of Bolton on the left of the defence in place of a jaded Keith Coleman, Ian Porterfield dropping to the bench for Brian Chambers and Jimmy Montgomery returning in goal.
Sunderland started the game looking to break down Watford quickly, but found their opponents from Hertfordshire to be more difficult to dominate than they might have expected, given their terrible league position. Monty was forced into an excellent save by the powerful Keith Eddy in the opening exchanges, but Watford’s game was hampered by an injury to Billy Jennings half way through the first half.
Yet it took until 39 minutes for the breakthrough to come, when Dave Watson scored a wonderful header from a Dick Malone cross. Still Watford were not going to lie down easily, and fought on until 72 minutes when Ritchie Pitt fed Mick McGiven, who lofted the ball over Andy Rankin. After that strike, the floodgates opened. Porterfield came off the bench to make it three on 76, and McGiven got the assist for the fourth when Pitt headed another beauty five minutes later.
The game was put to bed on 87 by Watson, who gave the performance of the evening. He latched on to a ball from Malone to bury the ball and leave Watford badly beaten. The five goals gave Sunderland prime position in the Watney Cup standings, but they were ultimately pipped to that dubious honour by Blackpool, who made a late season surge whilst Sunderland only scored two more in their remaining three games. [Ed: Ominous!].
Joe Bolton played well on his debut, by all accounts, and retained his place in the side for the rest of the season. He is remembered fondly by fans who saw him play; indeed he became a bit of cult hero, particularly for his part in the promotion winning side of 1976, and a year later he was honoured with Sunderland’s first ever Player of the Year award.
After playing for his boyhood club for 9 years, racking up 325 competitive appearances, 12 goals and three red cards, he left to join Middlesbrough for £200,000 in 1981. He went on to help Sheffield United out of Division 3 in 1983, before his career was sadly cut short by injury in 1986 at the age of only 31.
Sunderland: Montgomery, Malone, Bolton, Horswill, Pitt, Chambers (Porterfield ‘63), McGiven, Kerr, Watson, Lathan, Tuert
Watford: Rankin, Butler, Williams, Welbourne, Franks, Eddy, McGettigen, Kenning, Jennings (Wigg ‘24), Farley