1984/1985 ended up being an extremely turbulent campaign for Sunderland.
Relegation from Division One, along with a Wembley defeat, summed up the highs and lows of this particular season.
Following his appointment in March 1984, Len Ashurst steadied the ship and led the team to a respectable thirteenth-place finish after the sacking of Alan Durban. He had taken over at a difficult time, with the club struggling financially under the stewardship of Tom Cowie.
Ahead of the new season, Ashurst decided to dismantle and rebuild the team, a process that involved selling many of the club’s most valuable players.
Out went the likes of Bracewell, Chapman, Atkins, James and Rowell, and in came names such as Hodgson, Berry, Wylde, Daniel and Wallace. Two key additions at this time were latter-day club legend Gary Bennett, and goalscoring winger Clive Walker.
This match was the beginning of the love affair between Bennett and Sunderland, an affinity that continues to this day. He moved to Wearside from Cardiff City in a move that would ultimately cost the club £85,000.
On the opening day, Southampton were a formidable opponent.
With Peter Shilton in goal and the fearsome Joe Jordan in their ranks, Sunderland had their work cut out.
After only losing two of their last eight games the previous season, Ashurst’s new look team picked up where they left off, scoring three goals against England’s international goalkeeper and winning 3-1.
The game began in scarcely-believable fashion.
Bennett got onto the scoresheet with a goal from a set piece in the second minute, and only four minutes later, Barry Venison grabbed a second. This made the game comfortable for the Lads, and they scored a third through Mark Proctor with just under fifteen minutes left.
There would have been frustration for goalkeeper Chris Turner, who conceded a late goal from David Armstrong that made the scoreline look a little more respectable from a Saints perspective.
This day belonged to Sunderland, however, and in particular their new signings, including the aforementioned Bennett.
In more recent times, he has spoken fondly about this game and what he remembers about it, as well as his overall start to his career at Roker.
It was a special occasion for me- not only my Sunderland debut but also my first time playing top-level football. It was the first time for me to get that taste of what it was like to play for those supporters and also to play at Roker Park.
I scored a goal in the first couple of minutes which always helps to start winning supporters over. I had them from that day on and didn’t need to look back.
When you’re making your debut, supporters want to see what you’re all about and I was just something different altogether. I was a centre-half who was coming out from the back and playing out. People are thinking, ‘what is he doing?!’
The goal itself is a bit vague in my mind but I remember that I was playing against some big internationals. They had Joe Jordan up up front and Peter Shilton in goal.
It’s a set piece, it’s fallen to me and I’ve just put my foot through it and it’s in the back of the net.”
To score against the England number one, that was the icing on the cake.
Special it was, and Ashurst’s new-look side actually started the season quite well.
Up until November, the team had only lost a couple of times, and bizarrely, they drew five games in a row between September and October, which ultimately diluted what was a decent start to the campaign.
Things were going well until Sunderland were on the wrong end of a hammering from a Gary Lineker-inspired Leicester City - and the slide began after this defeat.
‘The turning point came in a home game against Leicester, who had somewhat of a struggling side. They also had one of the best forward lines of the 1980s, with Lynex, Lineker and Smith (yes, THAT Lineker).’
‘The result was that Sunderland were finally found out to the tune of a 0-4 reverse and from there on it was a hard slide towards relegation. A pattern was visible with Ashurst teams. When things went wrong, players constantly switched positions, formations were changed, and they generally looked bereft of ideas. Think of the England performance against Iceland at the Euros.’
‘That was Len’s Sunderland.’
‘Len’s Sunderland’ struggled from that point on, and finished the season second from bottom, only ahead of a dreadful Stoke City team. Even the cup final at Wembley couldn’t even bring any happiness, as the Lads lost 1-0 to Norwich City.
With no wins from their final nine games, Sunderland were relegated to Division Two, and Ashurst paid with his job.
Things couldn’t get any worse, could they?
Southampton (H) August 25th, 1984.
Sunderland XI: Turner, Pickering, Chisholm, Elliott; Bennett, Venison, Proctor, Berry; West, Gayle, Walker.
Goals: Bennett, Proctor, Venison, Armstrong.