As Sunderland’s latest crucial Easter program approaches, it got me thinking about Easter periods gone by, both successful and not so good! For as long as I can remember this time of year has always been “crucial” for us, usually with relegation or promotion in the balance!
My favourite Easter period ever (or so far, at least) was the 1979/80 season. I was lucky enough to witness every game of that Easter program as our promotion challenge gathered pace despite a bit of “squeaky bum” syndrome.
We had a phenomenal home record that season and played some cracking football at Roker. However, despite playing some nice stuff away from home we were not as successful. losing nine games and drawing seven out of a possible twenty-one.
As we approached the Easter program, like many I believed promotion was still possible. After all, we had only lost one game since our dire New Year’s Day defeat at St James. That said, the painful memory of our promotion near-miss the previous season (78/79) was still raw and all too recent!
We entered Easter week in 4th position and with only two to go up, Leicester, Birmingham, Chelsea, Luton, QPR and West Ham, as well as Newcastle were all still in the frame for promotion. It was very tight and nobody at this stage was running away with it. It really was squeaky bum time!
Our fixtures saw us at home to our nearest and dearest on Easter Saturday, followed by away games on consecutive days at Wrexham on Easter Monday and Shrewsbury on the Tuesday.
Despite the fact we had not beaten Newcastle at Roker for some years, I was strangely confident about that game. It was the two away games against mid-table opposition that had me concerned given our track record that season!
We had not beaten Newcastle at Roker in the league since 1966/67 season (when we hammered them 3-0 of course!), so this four-pointer seemed like a good game to break that run.
On what was a sunny Easter Saturday a typically tight derby game see-sawed one way and then the other in front of the 42,000 all-ticket crowd. Terry Hibbett and Bobby Shinton were quite prominent for the Mags, whilst the phenomenon that was Peter Withe that season was being kept very quiet by Jeff Clarke.
Joe Hinnigan almost scored just before half time, but 0-0 was the score as the two teams left the field. Arnott forced a great save out of Hardwick (later to sign for Sunderland) from a free kick just after the break and the Irish wizard Tommy Cassidy almost broke the deadlock for Newcastle.
We then had a stonewall (my view) call for a penalty when Rowell was tripped in the box, but the ref was looking the other way! Stan Cummins then created a great chance for Pop Robson, whose deft flick hit Hardwick rather than him saving it ……cue another massive surge in the Fullwell End!
With around 20 minutes remaining Arnott, Brown and Robson combined to set Stan Cummins up with a simple tap in. Cue more Fullwell and Roker End surges and all-around-the-ground ecstasy. As Newcastle pushed on to get something from the game, we could easily have scored two more with Brown and Cummins again almost getting a second.
The game finished 1-0 and the crescendo of noise at the final whistle was tremendous. “Here we go” I thought to myself from my noisy perch in the Roker End, as I relished our derby victory “first promotion and then Europe”. I was not greedy; the title would come in a couple of seasons!
Sunderland 1 – Newcastle 0
Newcastle – Steve Hardwick; Steve Carney; Ian Davies; Stuart Boam; Tommy Cassidy; David Barton; Alan Shoulder; Peter Cartwright; Peter Withe; Terry Hibbett; Bobby Shinton. (Sub; Nigel Walker)
Sunderland – Chris Turner; Steve Whitworth; Joe Hinnigan; Jeff Clarke; Rob Hindmarch; Shaun Elliott; Kevin Arnott; Gary Rowell; Alan Brown; Pop Robson; Stan Cummins. (Sub; Barry Dunn)
On to Easter Monday and the long haul to Wrexham. The last game of the previous season at the Racecourse ground had left its mark on me. Despite our victory we had failed at the last hurdle to gain promotion. I was not looking forward to this one despite our derby victory.
Wrexham were a stuffy hard team to play against. With Dai Davies in goal, future Liverpool full-back Joey Jones and Steve Fox, a very able centre half who had played for Brian Clough at Hartlepool and was coveted by Arsenal.
Thankfully we got off to a great start, as Alan Brown raced away and scored on four minutes. It settled the team and the massive away following down. Kevin Arnott was in an imperious mood that afternoon, prodding and cajoling slide rule passes and little one-two’s as he looked to be playing the game in a different time zone to everyone else.
I absolutely loved him when he was in this fettle. With Cummins, Robson and Brown all lively and Shaun Elliott having a massive game in front of the back four, we won this game at a bit of a canter. Wrexham had their moments, but I never felt we were going to concede and so it proved, another 1-0 victory. The only blot on this game was an injury to Jeff Clarke who had been an ever-present so far that season.
Wrexham 0 – Sunderland 1
Wrexham – Dai Davies; Joey Jones; Graham Whittle; Gareth Davies; John Roberts; Mel Sutton; Mick Vinter; Ian Arkwright; Steve Fox; Alan Hill; Frank Carrodus. (Sub; Les Cartwright)
Sunderland – Chris Turner; Steve Whitworth; Joe Hinnigan; Jeff Clarke; Rob Hindmarch; Shaun Elliott; Kevin Arnott; Barry Dunn; Alan Brown; Pop Robson; Stan Cummins. (Sub; Claudio Marangoni)
The long drive to Wrexham was followed by a relatively short hop to Shrewsbury for the following day's game. These journeys are always easier when you have won, and even enjoyable when you have played well!
A very nice B&B with a memorable breakfast was the precursor to an absolutely cracking game at Gay Meadow. To ease your tension we won 2-1, it could have easily been 8-5!
Chris Turner played a fantastic game with four world-class saves from Birch, King and future Sunderland player Ian Atkins and then Birch again in the first half alone. In between these, we had fashioned enough chances to win three games. Mercifully Pop Robson scored his fifteenth goal of the season as he ran on to a great pass from birthday boy (and Jeff Clarke stand-in) Gordon Chisholm.
Shrewsbury emerged for the second half and quickly scored after Birch netted a rebound from another great save from Turner. This goal spurred us on to greater efforts. Roared on by another big away following, (many of whom like myself appeared to have just hopped down across the border to Gay Meadow from our previous day's game) we took the lead again within minutes of the Shrewsbury goal.
A free-kick just outside the Shrewsbury box, allowed Arnott to provide a weighted pass to Cummins, who bent an absolute corker around the Shrews wall and almost burst the back of the net.
There was time for at least two more good saves from Turner and a very good save by Wardle from Robson (it would have been a great goal had it gone in). We finished the game in the ascendency and on top of the league with 47 points, ahead of both Chelsea and Birmingham on goal difference, with Leicester fourth on 46 points.
Shrewsbury 1 – Sunderland 2
Shrewsbury – Bob Wardle; Jake King; Carl Leonard; Graham Turner; Colin Griffith; Jack Keay; David Tong; Ian Atkins; Steve Birch; Stephen Cross. (Sub; Jimmy Lindsay)
Sunderland – Chris Turner; Steve Whitworth; Joe Hinnigan; Gordon Chisholm; Rob Hindmarch; Shaun Elliott; Barry Dunn; Pop Robson; Alan Brown; Stan Cummins. (Sub Mick Buckley)
We went on to finish the season in second position behind a very good Leicester side. We confirmed our promotion on the very last game of the season at home to West Ham, (who had won the FA Cup that season), in front of a 47,000+ crowd. Kevin Arnott and Stan Cummins scored the goals that sent us into a promotion frenzy.
What a very crucial and successful Easter period that was, with maximum points accompanied by cracking performances and games back in season 79/80.
Let’s hope for another successful Easter period in ‘21-22 season, and that it propels us on to the play-offs and beyond.
What are your most vivid Easter period memories?