Despite seemingly being dead and buried three months earlier, Sunderland went into the final stages of the 1976-77 season with genuine hope that they could pull off a sensational relegation escape act.
Jimmy Adamson’s side had put together a tremendous run of form that had brought them back into contention, and 45 years ago today they welcomed Birmingham City to Wearside hoping for more of the same.
The Lads had not lost a league game since visiting the second city and playing Birmingham’s rivals Aston Villa in late March, with a string of impressive victories either side of that game dragging them off the bottom spot in Division One.
The team were trying to recover from a disastrous start to the campaign that had seen them winning just twice in the league before February, prompting the introduction of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ who brought a new sense of energy to the side and were having a massive impact.
The ‘Angels’ were youth products and recent debutants Shaun Elliott and Kevin Arnott, who alongside Gary Rowell had the quality and youthful exuberance needed to inject some life into the club. The trio had all been scouted by the legendary Charlie Ferguson and were now strutting their stuff on the big stage, although on this occasion they were about to face a man that had already trodden the same path, Jimmy Montgomery.
On his way to becoming a bona fide Sunderland, legend Monty had himself come through the ranks at Roker, and just a few months earlier had made the last of his record 627 appearances for the club before leaving for pastures new.
In later years he would have a hand in developing further Sunderland talent in his role as youth coach, as too would his teammate on this afternoon, Ricky Sbragia.
There was no room for sentiment however and despite the presence of the returning hero this was a nervy game in which the crowd seemed on edge. Tempers flared a few times, and late on in proceedings, Rowell was booked for retaliating when he was the victim of a poor challenge by Gary Jones. The winger was also cautioned for his part in the fracas, but the incident did at least show just how much Sunderland were prepared to battle.
The first half had seen little in the way of meaningful goalmouth activity but that soon changed following a halftime reshuffle that saw the injured Mick Docherty coming off for Bobby Kerr.
Tony Towers had to drop in at full-back as a result but was given licence to attack, and that seemed to tip things in Sunderland’s favour. The side went close when Bob Lee headed a Kerr cross goalwards, but it was his strike partner Mel Holden that eventually got the winner.
With Colin Waldron, another new face following his recent arrival from Manchester United, and his central defensive partner Jackie Ashurst combining well to help secure a clean sheet the Lads had looked like they would have to settle for a point. With just seven minutes left, however, they were able to edge ahead, with some lax marking allowing Holden the space to head in Towers’ free-kick cross.
The goal meant the Rokerites had won their final home game of the season, but Adamson’s thoughts quickly turned to the remaining two games. Speaking after the game to Ivor Broadis, the former Sunderland player now turned journalist, he explained that the club had been intending on travelling to their next fixture at Norwich City by aeroplane, but that because some of the players had concerns over flying had decided instead to arrive in Norfolk a day early so that they could be well rested beforehand.
Setting a target of four points from that match and the subsequent game at Everton, the boss stated that “I can’t do anything about the rest of the sides – just our own games” and how apt that proved to be; Sunderland were left helpless as news filtered through to Goodison Park that the game between their relegation rivals Coventry City and Bristol City had kicked off late, and as that match petered out to a convenient draw that consigned the Lads to the drop they would have been forgiven for thinking one or two others would have done well to make suitable arrangements and ensured they’d turned up on time too.
All that was still to come, however, and on this day in 1977 Sunderland fans were still confident having witnessed a hard-fought victory over Brum that they hoped would drive them to safety.
Saturday 7 May 1977
Football League Division One
Sunderland 1 (Holden 83)
Birmingham City 0
Sunderland: Siddall; Docherty (Kerr 46), Waldron, Ashurst, Bolton; Towers, Arnott, Elliott, Rowell; Holden, Lee.
Roker Park, attendance 34, 193