It was an unusual end to the 1979-80 season, in that as Sunderland walked out at Roker Park on a May Monday evening there was no other football left to be played in Division Two. West Ham, our opponents in the spring sunshine, had reached the FA Cup Final – meaning our last league fixture of the season had to be rearranged.
The Hammers had beaten top-flight Arsenal 2-0 only three days earlier – Trevor Brooking registering the game’s only goal (incidentally, West Ham are still the last non-top-flight team to win the competition) and they headed north to play the final league game of the campaign.
While for seventh-placed West Ham the game was a meaningless fixture, for Sunderland it meant everything.
Three years after relegation from the top flight, we’d cruelly missed our promotion by a point on the final day of the previous season thanks to results elsewhere going against us.
This time around, however, our fate was entirely in our own hands. Despite sitting fourth, a point was all that was needed to secure promotion.
Ken Knighton had done a magnificent job to get us into the reckoning. The 36-year-old novice had taken over from Jimmy Adamson, who’d jumped at the chance to manage top-flight Leeds, the previous season, and had built a strong, young side. Knighton had signed Chris Turner, John Hawley, Claudio Marangoni and Stan Cummins for combined fees of over £1m – big money at the time. In all fairness, big money for us right now.
While 21-year-old Turner, signed from Sheffield Wednesday, from £100,000 made the keeper’s spot his own, displacing Barry Siddall as summer moved into autumn, at the other end of the field the 34-year-old Pop Robson – in his second spell at the club – was a virtual ever-present, missing only two games all season.
By the time his former club West Ham rolled into town, Robson had scored 20 in 39 games.
We knew a draw would have been good enough to secure promotion, and coming into the game on the back of 13 games unbeaten hopes were high.
A crowd of 47,129 officially packed into Roker Park, with thousands of others outside desperate to get in.
Roared onto the field, Sunderland – unbeaten at home in the league all season – were determined to finish the job, but it was West Ham, fresh from their Wembley victory, that started the stronger. Devonshire and Brooking pulled the strings in midfield and striker David Cross going close on three occasions – including one that Turner should have routinely held but somehow let squirm under his body – the ball, fortunately, going out for a corner.
Thankfully it was Sunderland who took the lead with six minutes of the first half remaining. Robson took advantage of a loose clearance and had a shot, which was saved by keeper Phil Parkes. The keeper, capped by England, could only parry it back to Robson, who shot goalwards only to be foiled by Parkes again. But it was third time lucky as Arnott knocked home the rebound to put Sunderland in the lead.
In the second half, a Ray Stewart drive whistled past Turner’s post, while Elliott’s chipped pass just evaded the head of Robson. Stewart limped off the field, leaving West Ham playing the final half-hour with just ten men after having made a half time sub.
And, with ten minutes remaining, promotion was secured. Cummins picked up the ball outside the box before twisting and turning and driving home from outside the box. 2-0, and promotion was secure.
As the full-time whistle went, chants of ‘Sunderland are back’ roared from the ground as the crowd celebrated the return of Sunderland’s top-flight status – the reappearance of Knighton and the team demanded from the packed terraces. Sunderland finished second with Leicester as champions. Birmingham went up in the third automatic place with Chelsea missing out by virtue of our win.
After the game, Knighton said:
We have deserved this over the season and now we will take stock and wait for next season.
It was hell to be on the bench and although the first goal was important, the second was the really vital one, And what a brilliant effort to send us up to Division One it was from Stan Cummins.
We will now relax and enjoy our Miami break for a fortnight – but we will reappraise everything in readiness for Division One football. I think we have the players at the club who can operate in the higher league,
The following season did start well – three wins in the first five games saw the club sitting third. However tensions between Knighton and new chairman Tom Cowie didn’t bode well, and Knighton was dismissed with four games remaining. A final day victory at Liverpool under the caretaker management of Mick Docherty ensured survival.
As for Knighton, a brief spell as manager of Orient followed, but that was that – aged 38, he walked away from professional football. He began a long career in telecoms – and had spells managing in the non-league with Dagenham and then Trowbridge, with whom he enjoyed a run to the FA Cup Third Round in the late 80s.