The term “sliding doors moment” hadn’t yet been coined, but neatly it describes the search for a new gaffer at Roker Park in the Autumn of 1976.
In mid-October Sunderland were ailing in Divison One and Bob Stokoe, having added promotion back to the top flight to his FA Cup winners medal, was the fall guy after one too many a defeat and no league wins.
The board were weighing up their options for three long weeks and - even after a five hour long meeting - seemingly hadn’t made a decision, with chairman Keith Collings emerging into the darkness to tell the assembled pressmen:
We like to think we are making progress.
We are certainly not standing still but I can’t put any time factor on it.
In fact, they’d made more progress than he was letting on, and although as the evening newspapers went to press there were still other names in the frame - Nottingham Forest manager and former Sunderland striker Brian Clough and Manchester United coach Tommy Cavanagh being heavily linked with the vacancy - the appointment of Burnley legend Jimmy Adamson was all but done and dusted.
The Ashington-born manager had won promotion as manager of the Lancashire side in 1973 but left before their relegation to Division 2 in 1976. He had been the Wearsiders’ number one target twelve years previously when Alan Brown departed, but he chose to stay with the Clarets as a player.
A short stint in Rotterdam with Sparta had not gone to plan and he returned home after only eight days, and now he was available to fill the void and was only a second interview away from taking up the job. But the news was kept quiet for a couple of days as the details were ironed out - particularly the status of Ian MacFarland.
Stokoe’s assistant had taken temporary charge of the Lads and managed a few decent results, including a 3-1 home win over Tottenham Hotspur and a 3-3 draw away at Manchester United, and Adamson was happy to work alongside him and would be deferring to MacFarland for the forthcoming fixtures.
As it turned out, Adamson was appointed on a non-contract basis late on the night of 1st December with MacFarland retained as his deputy. And he was fully aware that it was the former Derby and Leeds United manager Clough whose playing career had been cut short at Roker Park, that the Sunderland faithful really wanted:
I know I’m not the supporters’ choice. Cloughie was. There are some managers in this game who get too much credit. There are some that don’t get enough. I have come here to prove myself not for security. It will take me a few weeks to decide whether they players here can do it. For the next few weeks Jimmy Adamson will be walking around observing.
I believe I will have a successful season if we can stay in the first Division. It is great to be in the North East with a famous club that genuinely wnats to get to the top. I have been out of the game for several months but have never lost my faith in my own ability. I am determined, doubly determined to do well if it means working 26 hours a day.
Despite his self confidence, Adamson wasn’t able to keep the Lads up and, over the next couple of years he couldn't drag us back up to the top flight either over the next couple of years. He eventually left to take over at Leeds United in October 1978 and Cloughie would go on to win the First Division, two European Cups, the European Super Cup, and four League Cups with Forest.
Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out if Clough had come home to the North East instead of Adamson, but for a generation of Sunderland supporters, they were left with a feeling of what might have been had these few days late in 1976 played out differently.