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“The Sunlun Boot Boys!” - Memories of following Sunderland during the festive season of 1978

Who remembers travelling up and down the country in white transit vans back in the day to watch Sunderland away? Kelvin Beattie recollects doing just that and more during the festive period in 1978!

Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

In the second part of this festive odyssey, Kelvin fast forwards a decade from season 1968/69 to the festive period of season 1978/79.

It had been an interesting decade to say the least, with relegations, near misses, a momentous FA Cup Final win, European football and then finally promotion, only to find ourselves gloriously relegated. We arguably only had two seasons in that ten year period where there was nothing to play for as the season ended.

We entered the festive period of 1978/79 in touch with promotion but with 6 defeats, 5 draws and 9 wins up to that point in the season, we were inconsistent and unable to put a winning run of any consequence together.

Jimmy Adamson had left for Leeds in the October of 1978, having never really convinced the Roker masses that he was the right man for the job, despite his Ashington roots. Dave Merrington his assistant had taken over for a short period, but he followed Adamson to Leeds in December and once again the resilient Billy Elliott took on the role of caretaker manager for a second spell.

I had already travelled to six away games that season when the festive season arrived with a trip to Notts County. The Magpies were proving difficult to beat at home and had only lost once against Newcastle. I had not been back to Meadow Lane since my first trip in 72/73 and the 1-1 draw in the FA cup when Dave Watson (our top goal scorer in the 72/73 cup run) had put us in front, but we were pegged back in front of a lively 15,000+ crowd.

Soccer - League Division One - Sunderland - Roker Park Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

I was looking forward to going back, but my regular travelling companions from Morpeth and Ashington were not up for this game so close to Christmas.

So, I joined a friend from my school days in Newcastle and his pals, in the back of the hired big white van, which was a popular mode of transport to away games. I was usually one of the drivers in my Morpeth crew but got to sit this one out in an uncomfortable but humorous journey on a cushion in the back of the van, aided by copious amounts of Double Maxim, peanuts and salt & vinegar crisps - we travelled in style back then!

There was a sizeable away support of probably 4500 in the 11,000 crowd that afternoon and despite our away form so far that season, as well as County’s home form, there was a surprising amount of confidence going into the game.

The Magpies team that day included Ireland full-back Ray O’Brien, and the elegant (and, on his day, match-winner) Scotland international Don Masson. They also had Jeff Blockley turning out at centre half, who had experienced such a torrid time at Arsenal as a young defender bought to replace Frank McClintock. Blockley had a nightmare against Sunderland in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1973 (to the extent that manager Bertie Mee referred to Blockley as his worst ever mistake) and I like many Lads fans was unkindly hoping for more of the same. County also had a forward called Mick Vinter, who always made an impression on me when I saw him play.

The first half saw us largely dominated by a very lively County team. Masson was orchestrating and Blockley was not taking any prisoners and was having a stormer. Vinter and McCulloch were running us ragged as the half came to a close. Against the run of play, Joe Bolton intercepted a dangerous-looking Masson through ball and played a delightful pass to Wayne Entwistle (our very own punk rocker) whose clever shot hit the back of the net before McManus in the County goal had time to move. We hardly deserved it, but the delirium in the away support was short-lived as right on half time the ever-reliable Mick Docherty scythed down Vinter in what looked a nailed-on penalty. The referee not only awarded the spot kick, which Vinter despatched, but sent Docherty from the field.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland Photocall Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

It seemed a harsh decision at that very point, but on reflection, Docherty had been spoken to just before the offence by the referee for upending the same player. It was 1-1 at half time but since we were a man down, it's fair to say our collective confidence prior to kick off was evaporating as the second half kicked off began.

I had witnessed a game earlier that season at Burnley, where we had our two full backs Henderson and Bolton sent off just before half time with the score at 0-0. We contrived to win the game 2-1 in a fantastic fighting performance with goals from ‘Lord’ Gary Rowell - was it hoping for too much to think we could do the same with ten men?

We did not win this game but came very close as Mick Buckley, Rostron and Lee dominated in midfield whilst our defence played better with ten men. Clarke and Elliott were tackling and heading anything that came their way, ably assisted by Bolton and Henderson. Barry Siddall in the Sunderland goal was in top form in that 2nd half (I always thought he was underrated by the Sunderland crowd, and suffered from having replaced Sunderland legend Jimmy Montgomery). Entwistle ran himself to a standstill and Rowell prodded and pounced forward at every opportunity.

The game ended 1-1, and the travelling support had roared the Lads on in the 2nd half as the effort on the pitch deserved, and we came away with a performance to be proud of, as well as an unlikely point. We were in 6th position in Division 2 with a home game against a misfiring Leicester City to look forward to on Boxing Day, I was convinced our 2nd half performance would spur us on to victory against the Foxes, as well as right into the promotion dogfight.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland Photocall - Roker Park Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Just short of 25,000 festive souls trooped into Roker for that Boxing Day fixture in 1978. Leicester had been expected to be one of the favourites to go up following their relegation the previous season. Jock Wallace, the legendary Rangers manager, had taken over the reigns in that close season, but the task was proving difficult (it was to take him another season to get Leicester back up to the first division as they went up as champions in 79/80 with ourselves a point behind them in 2nd place).

Despite their lowly position, Leicester proved more than a handful on the day. The wily Wallace had done his homework on Sunderland, with Gary Rowell man-marked everywhere he went (rumour has it a Leicester player followed him to the toilet at half time), and the lively bustling Trevor Christie (a Newcastle lad) played out on the left and giving Mickey Henderson the run around in the first half.

It was no surprise when Leicester went ahead, Roger Davies who had previously starred for Derby County unleashed a shot that Siddall tipped onto the bar, it fell unfortunately to the mercurial Willie Henderson who promptly rattled the ball into the back of our net. This was not going to plan, and despite a lot of Sunderland pressure, Leicester went in at half-time a goal up.

The Leicester team that day included the very reliable Mark Wallington in goal, Steve Whitworth England full back who would sign for us in the March of that same season, Larry May (whose boots were being cleaned by Gary Lineker) and Dennis Rofe in defence, who were proving a sizeable hurdle to all our huffing and puffing in that first half.

Soccer - Sunderland Association Football Club - Photocall - Roker Park Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The second half had not been going long when our equaliser came from an unlikely source. Jeff Clarke broke up a Leicester attack on the edge of our box and stepped forward with the ball (I loved to see Clarke doing this, as his predecessor Dave Watson used to). Clarke used to make these runs regularly, but invariably (and much to my frustration) usually laid the ball off rather than try a shot. On this occasion with the Foxes defence backing off him, he unleashed a thunderbolt that almost broke the net. The equaliser woke the crowd and the team up, with Bob Lee having a stormer against his former employers.

Unfortunately, with Buckley having one of his poor games (he was either very good or very bad) and substitute Alan Brown looking like he had partaken of too much festive cheer, we just could not find the winner and the game ended in a disappointing 1-1 draw.

So ended the festive period of 78/79 season, two 1-1 draws but a fair degree of excitement and some reasons to think the new year might bring us the promotion we were craving.

The season would ultimately end in heartbreak. I can still taste “the bitter sting of tears” as I stood along with an estimated 12,000 Sunderland fans at Wrexham having gone from the ecstasy of winning 2-1, to agony as news of Brighton’s 3-1 win at Newcastle and Stoke’s 1-0 win at Notts County filtered through.

Soccer - Sunderland AFC Photocall - Mick Buckley Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The pain was not over even then, as we had to wait till the following Friday evening to have another season in the 2nd Division confirmed by Crystal Place who went up as champions, and with the label “team of the eighties” which hung like an albatross around their necks.

We were only two points behind the champions that season but once again missed out.

Despite the failure, only Brighton scored more goals than us that campaign and I witnessed some memorable victories that season, including that 4-1 win at St James courtesy of “the Lord Rowell” and Kevin Arnott, who was on fire that day. There was also a fantastic FA Cup tie at Roker in early January against Division 1 Everton that ended in a 2-1 victory.

Following that Boxing Day draw we put together a sustained run of 13 wins and 4 draws (losing only 3 games) in the 2nd half of the season. Whilst we did not go up, it did lay the foundation for our promotion in 79/80 under Ken Knighton.

Having just enjoyed our most recent festive fixture against Sheffield Wednesday, it's obvious to me that Sunderland are an essential fix at Christmas time for so many of us.

Let’s hope the new year brings us a successful conclusion to this season.

Happy New Year, folks.


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