By early February 1985 we were facing an all-too-familiar scenario, namely a battle to preserve our First Division status.
The first third of Our 1984-85 league campaign had been by and large an encouraging time, and after a rather epic 3-2 home win v Manchester United near the end of November, we stood in a rather comfortable mid-table placing, with the signs perhaps that relegation battles were maybe, at long last, possibly a thing of the past.
Sadly, any such optimism seemed largely misplaced, for December and January were rather horrendous months, during which time we suffered seven defeats in eight games which saw us tumble rather alarmingly down the table. And if this wasn’t bad enough, we’d also suffered what had now become our customary early FA Cup exit, courtesy of a rather inglorious 0-4 hammering v Southampton at The Dell. It seemed as if the alarm bells were about to start sounding, and rather loudly into the bargain.
Against this rather gloomy backdrop, a promising League (Milk) Cup run was shaping up.
And after having previously accounted for Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest (after a replay), Spurs (also after a replay, and thanks in no small part to heroics in both games on the part of Chris Turner) & Watford, Chelsea now barred our way to a first-ever appearance in the final.
It was a stiff challenge facing us v ex-Boro boss John Neal’s men, but we were to put our league worries to one side, at least temporarily, and raise our game to produce a truly memorable victory in the semi-final first leg in front of what would turn out to be the best home crowd in season 1984-85, 32,440.
And two men in particular were to have rather pivotal roles in the evening’s proceedings - our own Colin West, and Chelsea substitute Dale Jasper.
So with the atmosphere reaching electric proportions, the game began at a rather frantic pace in spite of a bone-hard pitch, with the first genuine chance falling to Chelsea. Following a neat move on the left between Paul Canoville and Mickey Thomas, the latter put over a dangerous cross, which Kerry Dixon was just inches away from reaching in front of goal. A bit of a let-off.
Then it was our turn to go on the offensive, and a second-successive corner kick picked out Gary Bennett, but unfortunately he couldn’t direct his header on target.
Chelsea were then dealt a blow in the twelfth minute when they lost centre-back Joe McLaughlin with a dislocated elbow, and he was replaced by Dale Jasper.
The visitors then forced three successive corners, but found our defence in a rather defiant mood. In the twenty-seventh minute we forced a vital breakthrough - Steve Berry sent David Hodgson away down the right, and the latter’s cross was handled inside the area by Dale Jasper, leaving the referee with no option but to award a penalty.
Colin West duly obliged from the spot, giving Chelsea keeper Eddie Niedzwiecki no chance, as most of Roker Park went wild with delight.
Chelsea responded strongly to this setback, and a flowing move involving Pat Nevin, Nigel Spackman and Mickey Thomas, ended with Thomas putting a dangerous centre across the face of our goal.
The Blues then forced another three corners in quick succession, but we reached the interval with our one-goal advantage still intact. But the visitors began the second period in rather determined mood, taking a rather strong grip on midfield as they sought an equaliser. Pat Nevin in particular proved to be a bit of a handful in the visitor’s attack, though thankfully he failed to make any real impression on our rather resolute backline.
Then in the sixty-seventh minute, we gave ourselves a bit of breathing space with a second goal, and once more Dale Jasper was the villain of the piece. This time he fouled Colin West inside the area after the latter had received a throw-in from Barry Venison, and West was once again entrusted with the spot-kick. This time, Eddie Niedzwiecki managed to push West’s shot onto the post, but the striker was quickest to react, prodding the loose ball home to the delight of the home support.
This second goal seemed to inject fresh life into us, and while Chelsea tired again to respond, our defence - in which Shaun Elliott was particularly outstanding - dealt capably with what The Londoners threw at us as they tried to retrieve the tie. Not that we weren’t without chances to add to our score, but the game ended 2-0 - a handy advantage to take into the second leg at The Bridge.
Sadly, what had been a great night and result was spoiled by the less savoury side of soccer as crowd violence flared before, during and after the game, resulting in the arrest of ninety-six fans, most of whom were from London. And unfortunately, this was to be the prelude for some rather horrific scenes in the second leg at The Bridge which took the gloss of a 3-2 win, which meant we progressed to Wembley by a 5-2 aggregate, as a possible route into Europe beckoned.
As for the final itself against Norwich... perhaps the less said about it the better really, except to say that after the thrills of having beaten the likes of Chelsea, Forest and Spurs in the run-up to Wembley, it was a massive anti-climax.
In fact, a missed penalty on our part and an own goal winner for Norwich tended to sum the game up from our perspective, and it seemed we’d missed out on possible European qualification.
In addition to those rather sorry scenes in our semi-final against Chelsea there’d been other instances of unsavoury off-the-field events in season 1984-85, most notably at Heysel in the the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, which resulted in a five-year ban from Europe for English clubs.
So to compound our Milk Cup Final misery, we suffered relegation from The First Division a few weeks later.
I guess it could only happen at Sunderland...