Alan Durban’s Sunderland started the 1982-83 season in eye-catching fashion as goals from Colin West, Ally McCoist and Nick Pickering gave them an opening day 3-1 victory at Villa Park.
Form soon tailed off however and after falling to the bottom of the table it wasn’t until mid-December that the side really hit their stride, when a Gary Rowell hattrick secured a win over Arsenal and prompted a run of three impressive draws against heavyweights Manchester United, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
The upturn in results meant that when Aston Villa came to Wearside early in the new year they would be taking on a reenergised Sunderland, whose confidence was growing despite injuries to key men.
Durban was without Shaun Elliott and Rowell for the match, despite what the back page of the programme suggested, and with John Cooke also missing Frank Worthington had to come back into the starting XI in spite of continued issues with his ankle.
Worthington was still fairly new to the club but his flair and vision were proving to be valuable assets. Against Villa he was joined in the side by debutant Leighton James, who had penned a deal three days earlier after being given a free transfer by Swansea City.
Like Worthington, James was a seasoned pro with plenty of technical ability, and the pair had a huge bearing on the result; a James free-kick was turned into his own goal by Kevin McNaught to open the scoring, and early into the second half Worthington sealed the points with a sure finish in front of the Fulwell End.
Picking the ball out of the net was Nigel Spink, who later worked as a goalkeeping coach at Sunderland under Steve Bruce. His opposite number meanwhile was Chris Turner, who in keeping a clean sheet equaled a club record of six consecutive league shutouts following a fine performance.
Not only did he have a hand in the second goal – it was his long punt that Colin West flicked neatly on into Worthington’s path, but he also produced several stunning saves.
One of those stops denied McNaught moments before Sunderland’s second goal.
Had Villa managed to equalise at that point the game could have panned out very differently; the visitors had several top class performers and although they had been unable to match the consistency that brought them the league title in 1981 they were still a very capable outfit - so capable, in fact, that later in the month they beat Barcelona on aggregate to win the European Super Cup.
Sunderland more than deserved the win on the day, however, and whilst Villa boss Tony Barton singled out Turner for extra praise this was a strong overall team showing in which they performed at both ends of the pitch.
A week before his debut, James and his wife Lynn had watched on from the Main Stand as Sunderland played out a goalless draw with Manchester City in the FA Cup – with his know-how adding an extra ingredient into the mix a youthful squad now had more balance and despite another poor run in the spring were able to pull away from the relegation dogfight comfortably.
Saturday 15 January 1983
Football League Division One
Sunderland 2 (McNaught OG 27, Worthington 48)
Aston Villa 0
Sunderland: Turner; Nicholl, Chisholm, Atkins, Munro; Venison, Pickering, James, Cummins; Worthington (McCoist 78), West.
Roker Park, attendance 16, 052