We have seen some cracking football and some stock of goals scored by our team this season. Our victories against Crewe, Doncaster, Cheltenham, and Morecambe have seen us score a total of 19 goals with only one against. It’s been great to watch and very welcome.
It has also reminded me of a run of games where we went from hardly being able to score a goal or buy a win, to scoring for fun – and all in the top division against sides packed with quality players.
It is without doubt the best ‘purple patch’ I can recall in my now 55 years of following the Lads.
The season was 1976/77 and having won promotion under Bob Stokoe in some style in 1975/76, hopes were high that we could kick on from our FA Cup win in 1973 and an emphatic promotion.
Our home form had been the bedrock of our successful campaign in 1975/76. We had won 19 and drawn two of our 21 home games to remain undefeated at Roker in the league. We had scored a total of 48 goals at home and conceded only 10.
Our home form had been phenomenal and had created a huge sense of expectancy and pride among fans as we responded by coming in our droves. An average league attendance of approaching 33,000 had also seen two gates over 50,000, (including the last 50,000 plus gate at Roker Park ever) that season.
We arrived at the top division and with hopes high for season 1976/77. Few in the 78,000 that watched the first two home games, a hard fought but encouraging 0-0 draw against Leicester and an entertaining 2-2 draw against Arsenal, would have imagined what was to come!
What came was dreadful.
We did not win a game at Roker till November 20th against Spurs, who were having a very bad season. The score was 2-1 and despite the victory, we were not convincing.
Bob Stokoe had resigned following a period of ill-health. Ian Macfarlane his assistant had been given the reigns temporarily by mid-October. He was though replaced in December by the much-respected Jimmy Adamson from Burnley.
Ashington-born Adamson seemed a quality appointment to most fans at the time, who were reeling at the loss of our messiah Stokoe. Unfortunately, Adamson never quite won over the majority of Roker fans, and he left not long into the 78/79 season having presided over our relegation from the topflight in 76/77.
Adamson had a tough start to his tenure.
Our home form coming into the Bristol City game at Roker in February had been numbingly disastrous. We had won one, drawn three and lost seven. Fortress Roker from the previous season seemed a very distant memory as I climbed the Fulwell steps, more in forlorn hope than expectation, along with 21,500 hardy souls that cold wet February night.
Big Mel Holden scored the only goal of a hard, dour game against one of our relegation rivals. At the previous home game, 23,000 had watched with bated breath and through our fingers as we had held on for a 0-0 draw in another dour game against Stoke.
This result had bought our nine-game losing streak (take note all you “streaky LJ” punters) to an end.
Holden’s goal that February night against Bristol was our first since a Billy Hughes penalty in a 3-1 reverse at Ipswich on 23 November. Ten games without even scoring required a good deal of resilience as a fan.
None the less, as I trudged away from Roker that night, I had decided if this was how it was to be, I would settle for hard and dour 1-0 home wins and backs-to-the wall 0-0 draws away from home for the rest of the season, to preserve our top division status and rebuild in the close season.
The Bristol game had been the first of four in a row at Roker over a 21-day period and it seemed a stiff ask for maximum points even though we needed them!
Next up Jack Charlton’s Boro.
Boro had gone up as champions in 1973/74 and arrived at Roker undefeated in the previous five games and eyeing a European place. They had beaten us 2-1 in the reverse fixture earlier in the season and Jack Charlton had turned them into a team that was very hard to beat.
The Boro team that day included Graeme Souness and David Armstrong, Phil Boersma, and David Mills. Their defence was formidable with Terry Cooper and John Craggs, Stuart Boam and Willie Maddren. They were going to be tough to get anything out of and I remember thinking I might settle for a point, when I saw the line ups.
Sunderland that day saw Siddall in goal, a back four of Docherty, Bolton, Clarke and Ashurst. In midfield we had a trio of youngsters: Shaun Elliott played in front of the back four with Kevin Arnott and Gary Rowell, along with the veteran Bobby Kerr in front of him.
Up front we had Bob Lee and Mel Holden, two beanpole strikers, both of whom had been struggling for goals.
33,000 responded to the Bristol result, as well as the lure of a derby and witnessed a typically turgid first half. Bob Lee had scored, and as we went in at half time, I would guess the majority were hoping we could hang on for the points that our performance just about deserved. No-one could have predicted in the context of that season so far, what was to happen in the second half.
With our midfield maestro Tony Towers struggling with injury for good parts of that season Adamson had taken his time and weighed up his options to pluck Kevin Arnott from the reserves.
The 18-year-old had played in the 0-0 draw against Stoke at Roker and in the 0-0 draw at Arsenal only to be dropped to the bench for Towers in the 1-0 victory against Bristol. If Towers had been fit for the Boro game, the chances are Arnott would not have played. As it was Arnott took his chance and turned in a mature performance of skill and promise especially given his opposition that day in central midfield of Souness and Armstrong.
Arnott’s story is even more remarkable when you consider he had been operating on a month-to-month contract and was not always guaranteed his place in the reserve team. He was rumoured to be disillusioned with football and considering giving up the game!
We scored three goals in that second half, to win the game 4-0. Holden, Rowell and Arnott himself scored in what felt like a second half rout of Boro.
Shaun Elliott played like a man possessed that day, winning the ball and passing it simply but effectively.
Rowell was all guile and movement. He had a great ability to pop up in the box almost unseen, but he also was a canny passer of the ball and would I am sure have made interesting reading for all todays ‘stattos’ had such analysis been around then.
Kevin Arnott is one of my favourite all-time players, and it started in earnest for me that day against Boro.
He looked like he was playing a different game at times. Smooth and graceful on the ball, he seemed to have all the time in the world. I had seen nothing like him in a Sunderland shirt since Baxter on a good day.
4-0! We could hardly believe it.
Was the great escape on?
Could we save ourselves?
The crowd was galvanised by the performance and Roker was rocking long before the end of that game. Jack Charlton was characteristically gracious in the press afterwards, declaring “I expected to come here and win!”
Jeff Clarke had been injured during the Boro game and his injury was confirmed as serious (medial ligament). He would likely be out for the rest of the season.
He had been our most consistent performer that season and on his day a class act. With him and Towers likely to be also missing for a number of weeks, we did not get too long to bask in the glory of our unlikely derby victory.
Adamson did respond to Clarke’s injury, bringing in the experienced centre half Colin Waldron from his former club Burnley. He was not signed in time though for the next home game, a midweek fixture against another team on the fringes of the European qualifying places – West Brom.
The formidable Johnny Giles was player/manager of West Brom and he had led them up from the second division in 1975/76 season behind champions Sunderland and Bristol City.
Future England skipper Bryan Robson was making his mark on the game alongside some experienced campaigners who were being blended into a very tidy effective unit by Giles. Robertson, Wile and Brown featured in defence, with a midfield including Len Cantello, Eire international Ray Treacy, and Scottish legend Willie Johnstone. Up front the very handy David Cross, who scored goals everywhere he went.
This was going to be another tough ask for Sunderland... find out what happened next in part two of Goals-Goals-Goals!