There are moments in promotion races where everyone, for a short while, believes that it really is going to happen this time around, only for it all to go pear-shaped a few days later.
We’ve seen it this season, when our victory over Oxford and draw at Peterborough put us in prime position, only for an unexpected string of defeats and draws to leave us at risk of falling at the final hurdle once again.
In Sunderland’s campaign of 1978/79, that same optimistic moment came as the Lads, third in Division Two following a tremendous run of form under interim manager Billy Elliott, took on relegation-threatened Sheffield United on a Wednesday evening at Roker Park 42 years ago.
With three games to play, this was Sunderland’s game in hand on the top two, Stoke City, who were on 53 points, and Brighton & Hove Albion on 52. It was four-horse race for the three automatic promotion places on offer – Crystal Palace were level with us on 51 points having also played 39 games. Goal difference was a factor too, Stoke on +26 goals, Brighton on +33, and both Sunderland and Palace trailing on mere +22.
Elliott was enjoying his second spell in temporary charge of the club for whom he made over 200 appearances in the 1950s, having taken over from Alan Brown for four games in 1972 before Bob Stokoe was recruited. This time around it was Jimmy Adamson’s departure, followed by David Merrington’s short-lived caretakership in the Autumn of 1978, that brought him back to Roker Park, leaving Norwegian club Brann to shepherd the Black Cats back towards Division One.
Sunderland’s hopes of promotion seemed to be a long way off when, after only four minutes, the first goal of the game went to United. A good cross from the Blades’ Argentinian striker Alex Sabella was knocked down by captain Mick Speight and smartly finished by central defender Tony Kenworthy.
However, a foul by Les Tibbott on Alan Brown just inside the box brought Wilf Rostron to the penalty spot, and he sent the ‘keeper the wrong way from the spot-kick to equalise for Sunderland. Then, on 22 minutes, a Steve Whitworth cross was half-cleared by the Sheffield defence only for Mick Buckley to drive the ball into the corner of the goal to give us the lead, which we took in at the break.
Two further goals – the first by Brown from a one-on-one and the second from Bob Lee after clever wing-play from Kevin Arnott – in the first ten minutes of the second half put the home side in a commanding position, before Sabella pulled one back for the visitors a minute later.
With eight minutes to go, and Sunderland 4-2 up, and Barry Siddall came to the rescue and denied Sheffield United a route back into the game after Gary Hamson found himself free in the box and his firm shot took a wicked deflection but was saved on the line.
The match was over as a contest with three minutes left on the clock when Rostron stepped up to score his second penalty of the game after he’d been dragged down when through on goal, and then Sunderland got their sixth and Rostron his third a moment later, the local lad crashing the ball past Steve Conroy.
In the final minute of the match, Peter Anderson was brought down in the Sunderland box by Jackie Ashurst for a penalty, but Barry Siddall saved Gary Hamson’s spot-kick to ensure that Sunderland maintained their four-goal advantage and finished the day level with Stoke on goal difference and top of the league on goals scored.
The final whistle was met with “crazy celebrations” from players and fans alike, according to John Richardson in The Newcastle Journal the next day. After the game, first-team coach, Ken Knighton, was keen to emphasise the big job he and the manager would have in calming down the side that had gone berserk towards the end of the game:
We mustn’t get carried away with ourselves and the main concern now is bringing the lads back down to earth again. Obviously, it’s a frantic feeling at the moment and it would be great to go up as Champions. But, really, our main concern was simply winning, and that smashing finish was just an unbelievable bonus.
The two games that would decide our fate were both against Welsh opposition; mid-table Cardiff City at home, and struggling Wrexham away. After an unexpected loss to the Bluebirds, a 2-1 away win at the Racecourse Ground on the final day brought us to 55 points. But was not quite enough to take us back to the big-time as Stoke’s dramatic injury-time winner at Notts County catapulted them from fourth to top, and cruelly robbed us of the third automatic promotion place with no playoffs to fall back upon.
Sunderland fans have had to put up with our team somehow managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so many times over the years that we really should be fully inoculated from getting carried away with ourselves before the mathematics of promotion have been fully and finally resolved.
But it’s the hope that keeps us going, and even though we’re managing to make heavy work of it this season too, we simply cannot afford to be held hostage by our past. We can, however, hope to learn the lessons from it.
Sunderland: Siddall, Whitworth, Gilbert, Doherty, Ashurst, Elliott, Arnott, Rstron, Brown, Buckley, Lee. Unused sub: Clarke
Sheffield United: Conroy, Cutbush, Tibbott, Kenworthy, Garner, Speight, Anderson, Rioch, Guy, Sabella, Hamson