Nobody could argue that Bob Stokoe performed a miracle at Sunderland after taking over from Alan Brown in December 1972.
The Northumberland-born former Newcastle United defender took over a side struggling at the wrong end of the second division as we sat 19th in a league of 22 teams ahead of his first game in charge at Roker Park against Burnley. Six months later, we finished 6th in Division Two, and of course, defeated all-conquering Leeds United at Wembley to lift the FA Cup.
Stokoe was getting the best out of a hugely talented squad, converting the likes of Dave Watson from a journeyman centre forward into a central defender that would go on to become an England international. But despite the talent that Bob Stokoe had managed to bring out of the players, we twice fell short of promotion to Division One in his first two full seasons in charge.
It would be in his third season in 1975-76 that we would finally gain that promotion to the top flight as we won the Division Two title, finishing three points clear of second-placed Bristol City.
However, after striving for so long to get there, life in the First Division was brutal for Stokoe’s side. After just nine games of the season gone, Bob Stokoe resigned with the Lads at the foot of the table as he left without a single victory in the top flight.
Ian McFarlane temporarily attempted to stop the rot as caretaker manager, until Jimmy Adamson was handed the reigns in early December 1976. Adamson had been part of the England coaching staff during the 1962 World Cup and had been approached by the FA to take over the national side before Sir Alf Ramsay took charge.
It’s probably fair to say as starts to a managerial reign goes, this was about as bad as it gets as Adamson lost his first seven games and Sunderland went without scoring a goal during his first nine First Division games.
By this point we were well and truly rooted to the bottom of the table and it appeared the season would continue as merely an exercise to regain some pride, but then something amazing began to happen, we started to win games.
After only winning two of the twenty-five league games so far, we then won nine of the next sixteen games, resulting in us not only being right in the mix to survive the drop on the final day of the season, but incredibly, we had our fate in our own hands.
As so often was the case in those days, the fixtures for certain clubs became bunched up for certain clubs, which meant a number of clubs had already played their final game of the season, including Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur who were already relegated.
For our final fixture, we were to travel to Merseyside for a Thursday evening clash to avoid a clash with the FA Cup final on the Saturday to take on Gordon Lee’s mid-table Everton side, who were facing their fifth game in 12 days in order to complete their fixtures.
Their previous fixture at Goodison Park against West Bromwich Albion could only attract a crowd of around 24,000, but with it being the final fixture of the season and the addition of the travelling masses from Wearside, over 36,000 were in attendance as Sunderland looked to beat the drop.
On the same evening, as fate would have it, the other two sides who we were battling with to avoid the drop were also in action, against each other. This meant if we couldn’t manage a victory at Goodison to help ourselves, then a victory for either side at Highfield Road would likely be enough to keep us up.
As the Sunderland contingent flocked to the North-West in an orderly manner to make kick-off, the Bristol City fans were apparently having issues in travelling the two hours up the road to Coventry.
There is apparently no official record of what occurred next in terms of who made the decision, but it was deemed that the kick-off at Highfield Road would need to be delayed. Controversially, the decision was linked with Coventry City chairman Jimmy Hill, who realised the advantage the two sides would have if they knew of the final result at Goodison Park.
By half-time, we were a one down via a Bob Latchford goal ten minutes before the break, and at Highfield Road, Coventry were leading by a single goal, which meant Bristol City would be relegated. This looked even more likely when Coventry scored a second only seven minutes into the second half, but Bristol City fired back almost immediately to return the deficit to a single goal.
They then threw the kitchen sink at Coventry and managed to force an equaliser, which meant we were now occupying the final relegation place and a goal to level things would once again keep us safe on goal difference.
We were throwing everything at Everton to get the equaliser, with Gary Rowell and Joe Bolton both going close. But as we committed every outfield player upfield to assist in the effort to find a goal, we were dealt the cruelest of sucker punches when Everton broke and scored a second when Bruce Rioch slid the ball past Barry Siddall.
At Highfield Road, the newly installed scoreboard flashed up the score at Goodison as 1-0, and then stated “Correction” before informing the crowd of Rioch’s goal. There were celebrations in the crowd and a realisation on the pitch between the players of what was required from either side - no more goals and both sides stay up.
The remaining seven minutes following the final whistle in our game was a farce. Played at walking pace with neither side intent on worrying the other side they were attempting to score.
To add insult to injury, the announcer at Goodison Park informed the crowd that Coventry had been victorious before correcting himself to halt the growing jubilation that Sunderland were in fact staying up.
There were complaints submitted through official and unofficial channels in order to work out what at happened, but in the end Coventry were handed the equivalent of a slap on the wrist with a warning to never do it again, that was of course until twenty years later... when they did it again.
Thursday 19th May, 1977
Football League Division One
Everton 2-0 Sunderland
[Latchford 35’, Rioch 90’]
Everton: Davies, Robinson, Pejic, Lyons, McNaught, Rioch, Buckley, Dobson, Latchford, McKenzie, Goodlass Substitute not used: King
Sunderland: Siddall, Docherty, Bolton, Arnott, Waldron, Ashurst, Kerr, Elliott, Holden, Lee, Rowell Substitute not used: Towers