Ken Knighton was just 35-years-old when he took on the daunting task of returning Sunderland back to the First Division as we were entering our third season in the second tier.
Promotion had looked likely the previous season, until Jimmy Adamson left for Leeds United and we could only finish 4th under the long-term caretaker manager Billy Elliott. Len Ashurst had seemingly been the boards choice to take charge but after our former defender turned down the job, Ken Knighton was promoted from his role as coach up to manager of Sunderland.
More money was spent in the summer than any other year as big-money signings joined the ranks at Roker such as Stan Cummins, who signed from Middlesbrough for £300,000, Chris Turner, who signed on the dotted line for £100,000 from Sheffield Wednesday and the more exotic Claudio Marangoni, who signed from San Lorenzo for just shy of £400,000.
Promotion was secured by finishing as runners-up to Leicester City, and cup success was achieved by winning the coveted Daily Express televised five-a-side torunament at Wembley Arena.
Despite promotion, there were constant battles with the Sunderland board and owner Sir Tom Cowie, and rumours that higher profile managers such as Brian Clough and Bobby Robson were being approached to replace Knighton as manager.
But the current Sunderland manager strengthened the side once again ahead of the challenge of the First Division. Signatures of Sam Allardyce from Bolton and Ian Bowyer from Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest meant the ranks were given a boost and we got off to a flying start by winning the opening two fixtures of the season.
A 3-1 win at Roker against Gordon Lee’s Everton was followed by a 4-0 win against Manchester City at Maine Road to put Sunderland top of the table. This form couldn’t be maintained however, and two wins in 14 games leading up to the festive period meant we had dropped into the bottom six by Christmas.
By the time Sunderland were to travel to the Victoria Ground to take on Alan Durban’s Stoke City side on this day 41 years ago, with just five games remaining, we sat just three places and four points above the drop.
It was a Stoke City side that included a young Paul Bracewell, as well as Lee Chapman and Adrian Heath and Durban’s men were having a respectable season in mid-table as Sunderland visited the Potteries.
It appeared from early in the game that it would be a tough afternoon as Sam Allardyce, who had struggled with the pace of the First Division for most of the season, was lucky not to put the ball into his own net in just the third minute of the game.
It would only be Sunderland’s determination and work rate that meant the deadlock wasn’t broken until just after the hour mark when Lee Chapman scored his 16th goal of the season when he converted a Paul Maguire cross past Barry Siddall.
Sunderland pressed for an equaliser and twice Alan Brown was denied a goal from a corner due to clearances off the line when the keeper was beaten and Peter Fox saved smartly from a Rob Hindmarch header. But five minutes from time, Stoke had all but sealed the two points.
It was Maguire again who was the architect when his cross was spilled by Siddall into the path of Alan Dodd who doubled the home side’s lead and put the game out of sight.
Following the final whistle, Knighton spoke of the constant rumours surrounding his job and the detrimental effect it was having on his squad:
The situation has got through to the players. Managaing a club is difficult enough without stories that you are about to be sacked. We have been working under a cloud for the last six or seven months. You try and protect the players from it but they can’t help but be affected.
Most of the stories started when we were in our best positions in the league for years. There has been a witch-hunt in the North-East. But now we have got to start closing ranks and start winning matches.
I don’t even think we should be discussing my personal position. The most important thing is that the whole business is getting through to the players. At least two managers have been suggested as replacements for me. The rumours have not been confirmed or denied. Now you can’t keep on pushing these stories in to the back of your mind.
Two days later, on 13th April 1981, Ken Knighton was sacked as manager of Sunderland with Mick Doherty taking temporary charge as he kept us up with two more victories, until the man who defeated Knighton in his final game, Alan Durban, was appointed as the new manager in the summer of 1981.
Saturday 11th April, 1981
Football League Division One
Stoke City 2-0 Sunderland
[Chapman 63’, Dodd 85’]
Sunderland: Siddall, Hinnigan, Bolton, Hindmarch, Allardyce, Chisholm, Arnott, Brown, Ritchie, Rowell, Cummins Substitute not used: Vincent
Stoke City: Fox, Evans, Munro, Dodd, O’Callaghan, Doyle, Ursem, Bracewell, Chapman, Heath, Maguire Substitute not used: Griffiths