Arguably the least well known Sunderland manager of modern times, the fact Ken Knighton’s Wikipedia page amounts to barely two sentences reflects his unassuming nature and relatively early departure from the game. His spell at the club should still be looked upon as being largely successful though, and the man born in South Yorkshire on this day in 1944 is certainly deserving of greater recognition.
When Knighton was appointed as Sunderland boss in the summer of 1979, he had little in the way of management experience. A former defender at Sheffield Wednesday, he had overseen one first team game at Hillsborough at as caretaker, but prior to Jimmy Adamson bringing him onto the coaching staff on Wearside the bulk of his work had come at youth team level. He quickly made an impact, however, and within weeks he was promoted to the position of chief coach.
That was before the start of the 1978-79 season, during which Adamson resigned and both Dave Merrington and Billy Elliott had spells in temporary charge. Elliott came agonisingly close to earning promotion but was not offered the job on a permanent basis and Knighton, who had continued to work in background despite the upheaval, was made manager instead.
Only 35 at the time, he moved quickly to bring Frank Clark in from Nottingham Forest as his assistant and former Owls teammate Peter Eustace as an additional coach. Clark had only just hung up his boots and Eustace not long before him, and so Sunderland legend George Herd was retained on the staff to provide some know how.
What the new trio lacked in experience they made up for in other areas. As a young gaffer, Knighton brought energy and ambition to the role, and he was keen to explore the foreign market. Crucially, he also understood the fanbase and made efforts to connect with them; a former mining trainee himself, he had noted Adamson’s seeming aloofness and felt a different tack was needed.
On the pitch, results were mixed at the start. Knighton won his first three home league games and Newcastle United were beaten on penalties in the League Cup, but the side couldn’t get a proper run going. The club won the prestigious Daily Express National Five-a-Sides tournament at Wembley Arena but it wasn’t until a 14 game unbeaten run at the end of the season that they really got into the Division Two promotion race.
The streak coincided with Joe Hinnigan’s debut and culminated with a memorable evening against new FA Cup holders West Ham United during which a Division One place was confirmed. As well as Hinnigan, Knighton brought in Chris Turner and Stan Cummins who would both become crowd favourites during 1979-80 and the side initially continued their good form back in the top-flight the following season.
The side briefly sat on top of the fledgling table after winning their opening two matches. It was an achievement that was only just emulated at the beginning of the current campaign and yet neither Knighton nor Lee Johnson managed to see out the remaining fixtures. Looking back, it seems harsh that a manger who had got Sunderland up in his first year in charge and was not in the relegation zone when he was sacked wasn’t afforded more time, but the feeling was that Knighton’s already strained relationship with the board had deteriorated further after he was harshly judged on the form of his recent signings and so was a sitting target.
After leaving Roker Park, Knighton had a short period as boss of Orient but, mindful of the stress football was placing on his family, then made the conscious decision to go into telecoms as a sales manager for Plessey and then Cable & Wireless. He did spend some time in the non-league scene and carried out some scouting for David Pleat, but otherwise has stayed away from the public eye.
He has not been back to Sunderland since leaving the club and felt let down by certain members of the hierarchy, whom he suggested did not back him adequately. His decision to move away from the game means he is not the most talked about former gaffer, but Ken Knighton still holds an important place in Sunderland’s history and if he does ever come to Wearside the fanbase would surely be keen to shown him their own appreciation.
Darton, 20 February 1944
1978 to 1981
First game as SAFC manager:
Bury 4 (Whitehead 51, Gregory 67, 70, Beamish 72)
Sunderland 2 (Arnott 57, Entwistle 87)
Anglo-Scottish Cup, Gigg Lane, 4 August 1979
Final game as SAFC manager:
Stoke City 2 (Chapman 63, Dodd 85)
Football League Division One, Victoria Ground, 11 April 1981
Management record at SAFC:
Won 35, lost 24, drawn 24