A run of seven consecutive wins had taken Alan Brown’s team up into second place in the table, and with an away game at relegation-threatened Swansea Town left on the fixture list we had a good chance of claiming the second promotion spot.
Going into the final weekend of the season, Liverpool had already wrapped up the Division Two title, meaning only one spot remained. Sunderland occupied second position on goal average ahead of Leyton Orient, and were headed to the Vetch to play Swansea, who themselves were in danger of a final game relegation. Leyton Orient faced Bury, another team in the division’s lower reaches.
Of course, this was still 25 years or so before the playoffs were created for English football, and it was top two or bust.
After a stuttering start to the season, which had seen the club in 19th position after losing five of the first eight games – Alan Brown’s side had come back in style, climbing the table in style and losing only a further six games all season.
A home record of 17 wins and three draws from 21 games (Liverpool the only team to win at Roker all season) was superb, however the away record of only five wins, five draws and ten defeats was less so, and meant that victory at the Vetch Field was far from a formality.
Wins for both clubs would see the season settled on goal average, which was calculated by the number of goals scored divided by the number conceded, multiplied by 100, and in those terms it couldn’t have been tighter.
Sunderland went into the game on 1.714 goals and Leyton Orient on 1.675, but ultimately knew that if we matched or bettered Orient’s score we’d go up – although there were a few interesting permutations.
It was Sunderland’s best season since our first-ever relegation (ironically enough, on goal average) in 1957-58, and the renaissance had been led by summer signing Brian Clough, who’d scored 29 goals in 34 league games. Injury doubts had surrounded both George Herd and Len Ashurst in the lead up to the game, however, both were declared fit for the clash.
Sunderland lined up:
Montgomery, Irwin, Ashurst, Anderson, Hurley, McNab, Hooper, Herd, Clough, McPheat, Overfield.
Sunderland went 1-0 up through the predictable and reliable source of Brian Clough on 20 minutes. The former Middlesbrough striker netting his 29th of the campaign, slotting the ball past keeper King while most of the crowd were distracted by a clash between Ashurst and Swansea forward Webster.
Backed by 3000 travelling supporters, Sunderland should have had a penalty shortly after to make it 2-0. Herd broke into the box in the inside left position and was challenged by two defenders – he battled towards the six-yard box before being brought down from behind.
It looked a certain penalty – newspaper reports described it as ‘the clearest case for a penalty there has been all season’ – but referee Jack Taylor waved it away.
And it would be costly because midway through the second half, Swansea equalised – Brayley Reynolds forcing the ball over the line after a defensive mix-up from a corner.
Sunderland knew Leyton Orient had gone in at half-time a goal up and launched attack after attack in an encounter that was becoming increasingly fraught.
With eight minutes left, McNab went down and had to be helped to the touchline. He was clearly concussed – and later it turned out he had a broken nose – but had to be restrained by trainer Wright and physio Johnny Watters to stop him from returning to the pitch when clearly unfit to do so.
Despite the pressure, Sunderland were unable to get that vital second goal and, as the final whistle blew, news filtered through that Leyton Orient had held on to the win, and Sunderland would spend another season in Division Two. After all of the ‘what ifs’ goal average didn’t come into it at all.
Alan Brown said after the game:
Of course, we are disappointed. I am sorry for their sakes that they did not pull it off, but our time will come.
And it did – eventually. The following season we missed out on promotion again in remarkably similar circumstances – goal average preventing the team from claiming second place after a last-game home defeat to Chelsea. And it was at the sixth time of asking - 1963-64 – that we finally reclaimed our top-flight spot.