After a tough start to the 1976-77 season, a battling display against Tottenham Hotspur 46 years ago today pointed towards better days – it proved, however, to be a false dawn, with the recent departure of manager Bob Stokoe in truth taking longer to overcome than initially expected.
Caretaker appointment Ian McFarlane had helped deliver the first league win of the season shortly after Stokoe’s decision to step down. However, with the side still in the relegation zone and the Scot being accused of alienating some of the old guard, it was not the happiest of camps behind the scenes.
An entertaining 3-3 draw at Manchester United had perhaps papered over some of the cracks though, and following a confidence-building friendly victory over an Australian Federation XI, the visit of Spurs offered the chance to further build momentum.
The visitors had themselves been struggling at the wrong end of the table, and but for a fantastic save from Pat Jennings, they would have fallen behind in only the second minute.
Not content with thwarting Ray Train, though, he soon created a goal for his side instead – the goalkeeper’s huge punt upfield bouncing high to cause chaos in the home defence before being collected by Alfie Conn and turned toward Ian Moores to tuck away.
Supporters may have feared that Sunderland would crumble at that stage, but if anything, they improved. Jennings remained in the thick of things and was soon tested by headers from Billy Hughes and Jeff Clarke, with Bob Lee being next up to test the Ulsterman. Lee had scored the crucial equaliser at Old Trafford and was on the hunt for more goals, but he too saw a header and then a low shot being repelled by the Spurs stopper.
Despite this, the Lads were undeterred and kept pushing. Gary Rowell had come on for the injured Tony Towers and he started the move that finally brought the equaliser, spreading the ball out to Hughes on the left, who in turn fed Train – the midfielder then cutting inside and steering the ball into the far corner as Jennings raced out and attempted to close the angle.
It was the best move of the match and meant that Sunderland were justly level. The side had refused to give up, and now they had Keith Burkinshaw’s team on the ropes; they then kept the pressure up and, with less than ten minutes remaining, got a winner as Lee found the goal he’d been chasing all afternoon.
This time the chance came from the other wing. Hughes set it up, crossing the ball from the right-hand side, and Lee reacted quickly at the near post to stab in.
Although he was beaten twice in the closing stages, Jennings was unsurprisingly named Man of the Match in the Sunday Mirror the following morning. Roker fans reading the paper may have been feeling a bit more positive about their team’s prospects, too, after witnessing such a determined performance – but the win over Tottenham provided the last points taken under McFarlane.
Permanent replacement Jimmy Adamson didn’t do any better in his first games in the role either, and as the rebuilding of Stokoe’s squad continued over the coming weeks, that Spurs success started to feel like a distant memory.
The side eventually clicked and came within a whisker of pulling off a great escape from the Division One drop, but the nine consecutive league defeats that followed victory on this day proved to be a massive burden.
Saturday 20 November 1976
Football League Division One
Sunderland 2 (Train 76, Lee 81)
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Moores 4)
Sunderland: Siddall; Henderson, Clarke, Holton, Bolton; Kerr, Towers (Rowell 46), Hughes, Greenwood; Lee, Train.
Roker Park, attendance 30,324