Season 76/77 had seen our return to the top division but coming into February had been nothing short of disastrous. We looked nailed on to go straight back down. We had been on a nine-game losing streak and had not scored a goal for 10 games.
However, three hard-fought draws and a 1-0 win against fellow strugglers Bristol City had at least given a little hope. Then a thrilling 4-0 derby victory against Middlesbrough at Roker, in a game where our young homegrown players really shone, had generated not only noise and passion from the Roker crowd, but a palpable feeling that just maybe we could yet save ourselves.
The 4-0 result and performance were out of step with anything that had gone before that season, and I remember rolling into our midweek game following the Boro rout still in a state of disbelief that we had not only scored four goals, but had turned in the ‘shackles off/no fear’ performance that had accompanied the goals.
West Brom were the opposition and player/manager Johnny Giles had them well in the mix for a European place. They had some very handy experienced campaigners, as well as a young midfielder, a Chester-le-Street born lad who was starting to make a name for himself... Bryan Robson.
Was it expecting too much given how the season had gone to hope for another performance like our last home game?
There was anticipation in the Roker air that night prior to the game. The crowd 31,500 appeared to be pulsing with hardly constrained excitement just prior to the game. I had not really sensed this since our 1973 FA Cup run. I (like many others that night) was ready to have my bubble burst, but more than happy to ride the euphoria until the letdown!
The Roker Roar that used to herald kick-off had hardly died down when Mickey Henderson (in for the injured Clarke) intercepted West Brom’s first pass forward and laid it off to Kevin Arnott. The young midfielder took the ball and in one gallus movement split the opposition defence with a slide-rule pass to Bob Lee, who put us 1-0 in front after 30 seconds!
I have often wondered what might have happened if we had not scored so quickly, would the crowd have got nervous? Would that nervousness have transferred to the players, especially the younger ones? We never got the chance to find out, 1-0 up after 30 seconds the shackles came off the crowd and team and in some kind of dynamic synchronistic spiritual occurrence, we manifested a 6-1 victory!
What a night this was, Arnott was at his strutting best and within seven minutes Irish international Ray Treacy had been booked for a nasty challenge on the teasing midfielder.
(As an aside, sharing the pitch that night on opposing sides, Ray Treacy and Mel Holden were both diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, Holden passed away three years after this game at 27 years of age, Treacy died in 2015).
Bob Lee scored a hat-trick that night and centre half Jackie Ashurst was credited with three assists (deceptive free kicks). It was 3-0 at half time with two goals from Lee and a rare one from the very impressive Shaun Elliott, who gave another all-action display. The roar as the Lads jogged off at half time was a thing of footballing beauty. The second half resumed, with the realisation that we had not dreamt the first half. Mel Holden and the delectable Gary Rowell made it 5-0, before Bryan Robson registered a strike and a goal for the Baggies. We had not finished trying to burst the net though, as Bob Lee completed his hat-trick before full time.
Something was happening and the Roker crowd bought into it. Our homegrown youngsters were not only playing themselves into our hearts but seemed to have galvanised the more experienced players. Lee and Holden looked like they would score every time they got the ball and Bobby Kerr was cantering about like a cup winning captain again.
For the record the team that night was Siddall, Bolton, Docherty, Henderson, Ashurst, Elliott, Kerr, Rowell, Arnott, Lee, Holden. Brown was the sub. Eight home-grown players in the 12-man squad.
We were now undefeated in the previous five games and had scored 11 goals in three games as we moved into our next fixture against West Ham at Roker.
The Hammers were on a three-game winning streak coming into their game at Roker.
With Mervyn Day in goal, Bonds and Lampard along with the colossus that was Bill Green (who had come out of the same Newcastle school and era as two Sunderland players from the early 70s, Mick McGiven and Brian Chambers), presented a formidable defence. Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire were part of a very creative midfield and John Radford had come from Arsenal to play alongside the dangerous Billy Jennings in a forward line that had goals in them.
West Ham had won the FA Cup in 1974/75 and had got to the final of the European Cup-Winners final the following season 1975/76, winning a lot of admirers along the way.
The crowd was just short of 36,000 that Saturday afternoon and despite our still-lowly position, the previous five games – and in particular the performances against Middlesbrough and West Brom – had generated a great sense of belief and expectancy in the Roker crowd. We had no right to feel as collectively confident as we did that afternoon but with magic in the air again at Roker, our cocky bravado was unrestrained.
Once again, we scored early on to ease any chance of collective anxiety developing. In the second minute Gary Rowell robbed Radford of the ball and put the galloping giraffe that was Mel Holden through for goal number one.
Six minutes later Rowell himself made it 2-0 as he ghosted a shot past Day.
We were in irresistible fettle now, as crowd and team gelled once more in “Roker symbioses”. Holden scored his second with a header on the half hour and once again we saw our team march off at half time 3-0 to the good for the second home game in a row.
West Ham had no answer that day and looked a bedraggled outfit long before full-time, as Arnott, Elliott and Rowell continued to weave their respective magic on the Roker paddock.
The second half resumed and on 52 minutes Bobby Kerr (who really enjoyed himself in this game) intercepted a pass intended for Billy Bonds and smashed it past Day. Two minutes later Gary Rowell scored his second of the game to make it 5-0. Bob Lee scored two minutes from full time to make it six, but in between Rowell and Lee’s goal we could have scored another three.
Mel Holden deserved a hat-trick that day and would have had one if his cheeky back heel had gone in, instead of hitting a post. Bob Lee had a diving header that would have been goal of the season if it had been three inches the right side of the upright and Colin Waldron, bought to replace the injured Jeff Clarke sent an absolute screamer narrowly wide.
What a result and performance this was!
What a trio of games this had been!
Sixteen goals and the emergence of three youngsters who were truly ‘three of our own’.
The team that day was Siddall, Bolton, Docherty, Ashurst, Waldron, Elliott, Kerr, Arnott, Rowell, Lee and Holden, with Brown once again sub.
Many plaudits were handed to the trio of Rowell, Arnott and Elliott and rightly so, they were simply magnificent.
But it would be a mistake to think it was all about the youngsters.
Siddall was rock solid behind a defence that found its mojo, not only in shutouts, but in winning and using the ball well.
Bolton and Docherty were as good a full back pairing in the division, and both relished a challenge as well as the chance to gallop forward.
Bobby Kerr sprang to life with his young protégé’s in midfield and once more looked back to his box to box, impish self.
Lee and Holden up front were an unlikely pairing. To the naked eye they looked too similar –big lanky target men. But they possessed very different skill sets. Holden was a tall target man, he could look awkward and uncoordinated at times and then would grace you with a sublime flick or back heel. He had deceptive pace and was good in the air. Lee was a clever graceful footballer. He could play in midfield and possessed a good engine as well as an eye for a pass.
What an unbelievable “purple patch” this was. It triggered a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful run to escape the drop back into the Second Division. But pride and belief had been restored, as well as that seemingly never-ending capacity of the Roker faithful to believe the good times will return.
Back to present-day and off the back of a difficult night against Lincoln, I commend this memory to my fellow fans.
The ingredients of young homegrown players, with experienced footballers and a crowd that can manifest magical things is once again present in the Roker air. The good times will return, of this I am sure. The symbioses that pervaded these fixtures back in 1976/77 is but a whisper away.