There’s an argument to be had that we took too long to get promoted to the First Division in the mid-1970’s. The side that achieved the impossible at Wembley in May 1973 had an abundance of talent, which was on display on that fateful day against Don Revie’s Leeds United, but it took another three years for Stokoe to return First Division football to Roker Park.
And when it finally happened, it was gone almost as quick as it came as we returned to Division Two after only a year. It then took another three years to return to the top flight, when Ken Knighton and his assistant Frank Clark took Sunderland up as runners-up to Leicester City in 1979-80.
Money was spent to achieve that promotion, Chris Turner arrived from Sheffield Wednesday for £100,000, Stan Cummins from Middlesbrough for £300,000 and the Argentine, Claudio Marangoni was acquired from San Larenzo for around £380,000 and to avoid another short stay in Division One, Ken Knighton would need to spend once again.
But in the summer leading up to our campaign in the top flight, only Sam Allardyce signed from Bolton Wanderers for £150,000 to strengthen the defence. Later in the season Tom Ritchie arrived from Bristol City for around £185,000 and the big signing was Ian Bowyer from Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for £250,000 but they did not arrive until after the turn of the year.
Despite only Allardyce making his debut on the opening day against Gordon Lee’s Everton, we got off to a good start, winning 3-1 on the opening day, which was followed up by a 4-0 victory away at Malcolm Allison’s Manchester City to take Sunderland to the top of the table after two games.
This would be only one of three occasions that we won in two successive games that season. We would come very close to dropping into the bottom three as the season progressed and with four games remaining, Ken Knighton was shown the door by chairman Tom Cowie, with Mick Docherty taking over as caretaker manager, with a remit to ensure our First Division status.
Ahead of our trip to Anfield on the final day of the season, our fate was still unknown and only a victory would confirm our survival against the drop.
Luckily for us, Bob Paisley’s Liverpool weren’t having the best of season’s domestically, and even better for us, they had one eye on the upcoming European Cup final against Real Madrid later in the month.
The following from Wearside was estimated at 10,000 that made the trip to Merseyside, which meant that the attendance at Anfield that day was around 7,000 higher than their home games that lead up to the fixture against Sunderland.
Bizarrely, ahead of kick-off, for the first time ever, Liverpool won the toss ahead of kick-off and decided to attack the goal in front of the Kop in the first half.
This was maybe an indication of the Liverpool commitment to the fixture, because just after the half hour, the huge away following had hope of witnessing a famous victory as Stan Cummins gave Sunderland the lead.
It came after good work from Gary Rowell as he sent Cummins clear through on goal after riding a Liverpool tackle, and once through, Cummins neatly beat Ray Clemence at his near post.
Liverpool might have not been at their best, but it was backs to the wall type of stuff for The Lads to hold on to our slender lead as described in the Sunday Telegraph the following day:
But what they [Sunderland] did at Anfield with a one hour performance that evoked memories of schoolday heroes’ tales of gritty men who defended Empires and bridges and thin lines, was the romance of the affair.
It would end 1-0 to Sunderland as we claimed not only a famous victory but two points that confirmed our survival. As it turned out, Norwich City, who sat in the final relegation spot level on points with Sunderland at the start of the day, were defeated in their final game of the season which meant we would have stayed up on goal difference.
We weren’t to know that however, and the points meant we finished 17th in the table, six places and seven points below Stoke City, whose manager Alan Durban was about to leave to join Sunderland only weeks later.
Saturday 2nd May, 1981
Football League Division One
Liverpool 0-1 Sunderland
Sunderland: Siddall, Hinnigan, Bolton, Hindmarch, Elliott, Rowell, Chisholm (Allardyce), Buckley, Ritchie, Brown, Cummins
Liverpool: Clemence, Neal, Money, Irwin, Kennedy, Hansen, Gayle (Russell), Lee, Rush, McDermott, Souness