They may have been midtable before kick-off, but the goals had been coming thick and fast for Sunderland ahead of them welcoming Bristol Rovers on this day 45 years ago, and things were beginning to look up.
After a sluggish start to the season the Lads had started clicking and three wins out of the last four games, the most recent two of which had brought six goals, offered some hope for the rest of the campaign.
Not since Mick Henderson’s return against Brighton and Hove Albion at the start of October had Jimmy Adamson had cause to change his starting XI, and with his side now working as a well-balanced unit he selected the same team for the seventh consecutive time, with the visitors looking like perfect opponents too.
An in-form and settled Sunderland group must have been licking their lips at facing Rovers, who had conceded 15 times in their last three away trips. Even with the wind at their backs in the first half the Pirates looked flakey, and once Paul Randall mis-hit a rare opening his side quickly lost what little confidence they’d had left. It was at that point the Rokerites pounced, and it was their stalwart Bobby Kerr that led the charge.
Writing for the following day’s Sunday Sun, Ivor Broadis was impressed what he saw from the tireless Scot. Once a regular creator of chances himself when playing for Sunderland between 1949 and 1951, Broadis watched Kerr set up the opening two goals – the first coming when his right wing cross was controlled by Wilf Rostron and fired in by Kevin Arnott, and the second seeing another ball in being flicked on by Bob Lee for Roy Greenwood to volley home.
The second was courtesy of a particularly good bit of thinking, Kerr purposefully hitting the cross low so to avoid the winds, but the scorer wouldn’t get to witness the next goal following a bout of double vision during the half time break.
Greenwood wasn’t the only one to miss the goal either – after sending the rest of his team back out for the second half, Adamson remained in the changing rooms to discuss the issue with the club doctor; it was eventually decided that Greenwood could continue, but only after Henderson had got his first of the season.
The manager may have regretted missing the strike as it happened to be a thunderbolt from outside the box. Keen presumably not to risk upsetting the rhythm of the side though, he will have been happy to see Sunderland back up to their full complement.
Adamson later told the press that he was also very pleased with the standard of passing that he witnessed, but there were to be another two quick-fire goals before he could really settle back down into the dugout.
With Henderson on the pitch once more Shaun Elliott made it 4-0 when he swept in from a Rostron freekick that had again been played low in order to beat the conditions as much as the Rovers rear-guard. The fifth came soon after too thanks to more intelligent play, Lee and Gary Rowell trading passes before the former finished the move off, and with the game now over as a contest, the crowd was able to enjoy some stress-free football. The win was so comfortable, in fact, that Sunderland could afford to concede a consolation when Bobby Gould squared the ball for Dave Staniforth.
That breakaway goal did little to dint the growing sense of optimism that was being felt on Wearside at that point. Star forward Rowell had still contributed to the game, but even without his deadly finishing skills the team had still managed to plunder five goals - and even more than that, they had been shared amongst the team so hopes were building.
The mood wasn’t to last much longer, however, and after two more draws a trio of defeats then followed. The sequence even included a dismal loss in the return at Rovers’ Eastville Stadium, and the hot and cold nature of the Lads was further highlighted when the Gas came back to the North East and won in the FA Cup two months after their humbling on this day.
Furthermore, the up-and-down pattern continued thereafter. After a bitter relegation in 1976-77 that had seen the squad battle valiantly the initial predictions had been good, but whilst another strong run at the end of season, which saw five wins out of six, boosted the final league placing a promotion chase never really materialised.
There was at least some solace for Adamson in the meantime – the day after beating Bristol Rovers Tyne Tees broadcast highlights of the match from 16:15, meaning he got the opportunity to see that Henderson stunner after all.
Coincidently, the boss had featured on the front cover of the game’s edition of the Roker Review, pictured chatting with his deputy Dave Merrington and commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme. The iconic broadcaster was now working for Tyne Tees and it just so happened that he was now about to catch Sunderland on one of their better days.
Saturday 12 November 1977
Football League Division Two
Sunderland 5 (Arnott 18, Greenwood 39, Henderson 47, Elliott 49, Lee 50)
Bristol Rovers 1 (Staniforth 68)
Sunderland: Siddall; Henderson, Elliott, Ashurst, Bolton; Rostron, Kerr, Arnott, Greenwood; Lee, Rowell. Unused: Holden.
Roker Park, attendance c. 24, 633