As the 1971-72 campaign was about to enter its final stages, our Second Division promotion bid was still looking rather promising. In spite of three successive 1-1 draws during March, at Blackpool, leaders Norwich & Swindon, we still entered the vital Easter period in fourth spot in the table, six points off second-placed Birmingham, but with a precious game in hand.
Our First Division ambitions then received a setback in the shape of a rather shock 0-1 home reverse against relegation-threatened Hull City on Easter Saturday, but we were soon to get back on track just two days later in another home fixture, this time against Burnley.
“The Clarets”, having been demoted from The First Division at the end of the previous season, had been amongst the Second Division pacemakers for most part, and had looked good for an instant return upstairs. However, in recent weeks they’d suffered something of a form lapse, and as such had slipped down into the mid-table region - and prior to their visit to Roker, were now all but out of the promotion reckoning.
But our visitors, managed at the time by future SAFC manager Jimmy Adamson, and whose side featured one or two familiar names, ie Colin Waldron and Mick Docherty - both of whom would also move on to Roker later in the decade (the Iatter also acting as caretaker manager for a spell, following the sacking of Ken Knighton, near the end of season 1980-81) - would still no doubt pose quite a stiff test for us. And as it turned out, the game would turn out to be a thriller, with the lead changing hands three times - finally in our favour, courtesy of a rather crazy three goals in four minutes spell near the end.
We dominated the first half-hour or so, but it wasn’t until the thirty-eighth minute that our more or less non-stop pressure finally paid off. A right-wing corner from Bobby Kerr eventually reached Dave Watson via Dennis Tueart and Mick McGiven, and Watson drove the ball home.
However, this was where our dominance ended, at least temporarily.
This setback seemed to spur Burnley into life, and they were to turn the tables with two goals in four minutes from Eric Probert and Martin Dobson following some defensive slackness on our part.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the visitors then went 3-1 ahead just twelve minutes into the second period - when an attack of ours broke down, Burnley broke at speed, and Frank Casper neatly lobbed Jim Montgomery to give his side a seemingly unassailable lead.
Mission impossible then, it seemed, but the introduction of Billy Hughes as subsitute for John Lathan not long past the hour-mark seemed to inject fresh life and purpose into us. And Hughes first meaningful contribution was a well-placed header, which forced a fine save from Burnley keeper Alan Stevenson.
Billy Hughes, Dennis Tueart and Dave Watson then all came close, but in the seventy-fifth minute our persistence finally paid off when we reduced the deficit. Billy Hughes was the architect when he went on a strong run down the right, before crossing to find Dave Watson, who gleefully slammed home his second of the game.
Just a minute later we levelled matters up, with Billy Hughes again the instigator. This time his neatly chipped pass found Keith Coleman, who headed home his first-ever Sunderland goal, and a more apt time he surely couldn’t have chosen. Game on.
It was to get even better eleven minutes from time, for after further sustained pressure on the Burnley goal, Billy Hughes beat Alan Stevenson to a Bobby Kerr free-kick from just outside the area to slide home what proved to be the winner.
From being in a position of near-hopelessness we now found ourselves on the verge of a vital win, though while we continued to pound the Burnley goal during the remainder of the game - with Billy Hughes, Dick Malone, Dennis Tueart and Dave Watson all going close to adding to our advantage - 4-3 was how it ended.
It had been a fine afternoon’s entertainment for a rather disappointing crowd of just over 14,000, though the win gave us the double over Burnley, whom we’d beaten 1-0 at Turf Moor earlier in the season. We remained in fifth place in The Second Division table, still six points off second-placed Birmingham, but our next two fixtures - at Burnley’s mid-table neighbours Preston, then at home against relegation-haunted Cardiff - offered us the chance to make up further ground on the leaders.
Sadly, however, our promotion push was eventually to fizzle out due to some rather costly dropped points during the run-in, and we eventually ended season 1971-72 in fifth place in The Second Division.
Still, after the disappointing mid-table finish in 1970-71, it seemed that progress was now being made, and our final placing this time around certainly seemed to offer encouragement that better times were not too far away.
And so it proved, though it did take what turned out to be a rather inspirational managerial appointment to set us back on the path to glory. But that’s another story...