After Ken Knighton took us back to the First Division at the end of the 1979-80 season after two seasons in the second division, it became a regular battle for survival against the drop.
Knighton didn’t last the full season following promotion and was replaced briefly by Mick Doherty, before what seemed like long-term thinking kicked in with the appointment of Alan Durban ahead of the 1981-82 season.
Young players were blooded immediately into the first team by Durban, with the likes of Barry Venison, Colin West, and Nick Pickering all getting a chance to step up. But while Durban was attempting to plan ahead, we were hanging on to our status as a top-flight club by the skin of our teeth, and ahead of his third season in charge, more was expected.
These expectations, however, were against the backdrop of a battle in the boardroom where the inevitable result was the tightening of the purse strings in terms of funds available to strengthen the squad.
This meant the outlay ahead of the 1983-84 season was minimal, with only Paul Bracewell being added to the ranks from Stoke City for around £225,000 before the opening day of the season.
Despite signing one of the most promising 21-year-olds in the country, Durban was clearly disappointed not to have had the opportunity to strengthen the squad and after winning only one of the first six league games of the season, it appeared it was going to be another long season to beat the drop.
Back-to-back victories over the festive period combined with a new striker in the form of Arsenal’s Lee Chapman who signed for around £100,000, raised hopes that it could be a season of mid-table mediocrity. But a run of seven games without a win after the turn of the year meant not only were we looking over our shoulders again, but it also meant the end of Alan Durban’s reign as manager of Sunderland.
It was a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford against Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United that finally convinced chairman Sir Tom Cowie to pull the trigger, with Kevin Moran doing the damage with a brace after Lee Chapman had given Durban’s side an early lead.
Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, who was on the books as a player-coach at the ripe old age of 38, took temporary charge of the 2-2 draw at Arsenal that followed before the appointment of former Sunderland defender Len Ashurst as the new man in charge at Roker.
Things looked promising when Ashurst ended our run of eight games without a win at the first time of asking as we claimed all three points against Terry Venables’ high-flying Queens Park Rangers via a Terry Fenwick own goal at Roker Park, but only two points were claimed in the five games that followed and things looked bleak once again.
That was until a run of three wins in four gave us a chance, and ahead of our final fixture at Leicester City, our fate was in our own hands as part of a group of five clubs that could still potentially be relegated. We knew a win would mean survival would be confirmed and we wouldn’t need to be consulting the wireless regarding scores elsewhere.
When it comes to Sunderland, these final day fixtures, especially when there is so much riding on the result, usually contain levels of drama that can increase blood pressure levels well beyond a level deemed safe, but this time around we took advantage early on.
With only eight minutes on the clock, Colin West flicked on a punt forward from Chris Turner to send Chapman through on goal who finished calmly to give The Lads the lead. Leicester looked dangerous with a partnership of Alan Smith and Gary Lineker up top and Gordon Milne’s side threatened to make it all-square, but we still had our moments with Ian Atkins having a goal disallowed, and a few minutes before half-time, we doubled our lead.
This time it was veteran ‘Pop’ Robson who scored the goal, to put us in a commanding position to stay in the top flight as he scored from close range after the Leicester keeper had kept out two Lee Chapman attempts in quick succession.
It was maybe fitting that the Sunderland-born striker scored the goal on his final appearance of what was his third spell at the club as a player, which would also put him in the record books as Sunderland's oldest ever goalscorer.
As it turned out, Birmingham failed to win on the final day and we would have stayed up regardless but it’s reassuring to know that a final day without relative drama does exist when it comes to Sunderland.
Saturday 12th May, 1984
Canon Football League Division One
Leicester City 0-2 Sunderland
[Chapman 8’, Robson 41’]
Sunderland: Turner, Venison, Chisholm, Elliott, Pickering, Atkins, Bracewell, Proctor, Robson, West, Chapman Substitute not used: Atkinson
Leicester City: Andrews, Smith, Wilson, Kelly, Williams, Rennie, Lynex, Ramsey, English, Smith, Lineker (Feeley)