Just imagine this scenario for a moment. Sunderland are bottom of the top tier of English football... ok, nothing too out of the ordinary here, but picture this: we have five games remaining, and next up the mags are visiting the Stadium of Light for a Good Friday fixture in front of almost 52,000 – we’re desperate to avoid the drop and they sit 6th in the table.
Again, nothing too crazy there, especially considering our recent escapades in the Premier League, but then imagine that following that huge fixture against our nearest and dearest, we take on a top-four side who are flying... the next day. Saturday afternoon. Twenty-four hours later.
In 1970, this was the scenario that faced Alan Brown and Sunderland as we attempted to salvage an awful season and avoid what was potentially only the second relegation in the club’s history.
Our first relegation occurred during Brown’s first spell in charge in 1957-58, and after toiling away until the summer of 1964 to get us back to the promised land of the First Division, he promptly resigned and took the job at Sheffield Wednesday. He would return in February 1968 after Ian McColl had steered the ship to multiple finishes in the bottom half of Division One.
We lost five of his first seven back in charge during 1968-69, and two victories from the final three games ensured survival for another year, but the following season was a complete disaster.
From only the third game of the season, we would occupy a place in the bottom three for the rest of the season, and we’d have to wait until our 11th fixture to pick up our first victory of the campaign.
By the time Newcastle United visited Roker on Good Friday 1970, the Lads were rooted to the foot of the table, three points (these were the days of two points for a win) adrift of Crystal Palace with a game in hand.
We were coming off the back of a draw at top-half Coventry and, just as Alan Brown’s side had remained resilient at Highfield Road three days earlier, they did so again at Roker Park in front of 51,950, when Bobby Park (or maybe it was Dennis Tueart?!) equalised with 15 minutes remaining after Newcastle took the lead six minutes into the second half.
Two points in four days against top-six opposition isn’t bad going, but at this stage of the season it never feels enough, although it had closed the gap to only two points to Crystal Palace. Next up, however – the following day in fact if I haven’t mentioned already – Brian Clough brought his high-flying, newly-promoted Derby County to Roker Park.
Clough’s side contained the likes of John O’Hare, Alan Durban, John McGovern and Roy McFarland and were sitting 4th in the table, despite the fact they had only just arrived in the top-flight.
It was Sunderland’s third game in just five days and although it would be obvious the players would be feeling the strains of putting on their boots to go again the next day, there were signs that fans were feeling it as well, with the attendance dropping from almost 52,000 against Newcastle to just 18,818.
Clough’s side were flying as, only five years after leaving a coaching role at Roker Park, he came up against the man who brought him to Sunderland from Middlesbrough in the summer of 1961 and was arguably his inspiration to become a football manager.
It would be guts and determination that would keep Sunderland in the game as Terry Hennessey, who Clough had plucked from Nottingham Forest for a princely sum of £150,000, ran the show. There was an obvious gulf in class as Ken Gorman in The Journal described:
To be fair to the present squad, no-one could ask for more spirit and fortitude than they have shown. Perhaps their efforts were working class, compared with the aristocratic touches provided by Brian Clough’s men... but, whatever was lacking, effort certainly wasn’t.
It took 22 minutes for Derby County to take the lead when, Clough stalwart throughout the years, John McGovern, scored the opener, but the lead lasted just over ten minutes when Gordon Harris got the equaliser for Sunderland.
It was a sign of how the season had gone that Gordon Harris would end as Sunderland’s top goalscorer in the league with only seven goals, where four had come from the spot. On this occasion, it was a “glorious” pass from Bobby Park that gave Harris the chance to level things up.
It would remain honours even, as Sunderland drew 1-1 for a third consecutive game against opposition from the top half of the table, with another respectable performance as The Journal marked the Lads performances:
Montgomery 8, Irwin 6, Harvey 6, Todd 7, Heslop 6, McGiven 7, Park 5, Kerr 6, Hughes 6, Harris 7, Tueart 7
Alan Brown remained upbeat following the game and gave a message for the Sunderland fans who worried about a second relegation to the Second Division:
If the worst comes to the worst and Sunderland are relegated, it certainly won’t mark the end of the club. Merely the opening of a new chapter... a new beginning.
A message we’ve heard once or twice in the intervening 52 years.
Despite winning at Manchester City in the following fixture and then drawing at Everton, who ran away with the title that year, we were relegated after defeat against Bill Shankly’s Liverpool on the final day of the season – having known that a victory would have been enough to keep us up.
Saturday 28th March, 1970
Football League Division One
Sunderland 1-1 Derby County
[Harris 35’ - McGovern 23’]
Sunderland: Montgomery, Irwin, Harvey, Todd, Heslop, McGiven, Park, Kerr, Hughes, Harris, Tueart Substitute not used: Symm
Derby County: Green, Webster, Robson, Hennessey, McFarland, Durban, McGovern (Wignall), Carlin, O’Hare, Hector, Hinton