After a heartbreaking and highly controversial relegation just a few months earlier, Sunderland had been hopeful of making an immediate return to the topflight during 1977-78 – but whilst those filing into Roker Park 45 years ago today were about to see the eventual Division Two champions, it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be the home team troubling the promotion places.
The season had already got off to an underwhelming start and it came as little shock when visitors Bolton Wanderers took the lead in the latest fixture.
The Lads were not exactly outclassed – they did have their moments – but once Neil Whatmore had opened the scoring after a quarter of an hour it soon became apparent that Ian Greaves’ men were the ones to watch going forward.
Looking to pass and move as much as possible, the Trotters wrapped up the points with a second half strike from Peter Reid and showed exactly why they would go on to top the table.
Those watching on from the stands were not the only ones that needed convincing about the prospects on Wearside. It would be another year and a bit before Jimmy Adamson left his post to take over at Leeds United, but in a candid post-match interview it was already starting to become clear that the Sunderland boss was having doubts about how far he could take the club.
Conceding that his side had fallen well short against Bolton, it appeared from the quotes seen in the Newcastle Journal the following Monday that the manager had identified the main issue and had his eye on bringing in some much-needed reinforcements. Wilf Rostron had already come into the squad prior to the campaign starting and became a reliable and versatile midfield performer, but Adamson still wanted more:
We are not functioning in midfield and midfield is the hub of football. We are not doing it there.
We are short of quality…we even had players falling over the ball.
A rifle is no good without bullets… I’m an utterly ruthless professional and I’ll have to get someone to do it.
His plans in the middle were not helped by the ongoing injury status of Peter Stronach, the highly rated youngster who had played alongside Rostron at England youth level and was now fit enough to be handed a senior debut against Bolton.
Playing in a deeper role than he was primarily known for, he gave a good account of himself but was unable to build on a promising start due to continued problems.
Perhaps then Adamson was starting to regret the decision to sell Ray Train earlier in the year. Heavily involved during the run-in when Sunderland were last at this level and had themselves won the league, Train was now at Bolton and looked in decent form back on his old stomping ground playing alongside three men that would later come to Wearside in various capacities – Seamus McDonagh, Sam Allardyce and of course goalscorer Reid.
Their arrivals were much further down the line however, and for now, despite Adamson’s intentions, the only newcomers about to appear any time soon were Roly Gregory and Wayne Entwistle.
The pair both joined the cause in November, by which point Sunderland had shown some signs of improvement but were still off the pace.
A late rally of five win out of the last six games would in time elevate the Lads to 6th, but the Trotters had already highlighted just how far away they really were.
Saturday 17 September 1977
Football League Division Two
Bolton Wanderers 2 (Whatmore 16, Reid 66)
Sunderland: Siddall; Docherty, Waldron, Ashurst, Bolton; Rostron, Stronach (Kerr 70), Elliott, Rowell; Brown, Lee.
Roker Park, attendance 30,342