After a rather disappointing mid-table finish in the Second Division following the conclusion of the 1970-71 campaign, our form in the very early part of 1971-72, while by no means spectacular or brilliant, still maybe suggested that better fortunes lay ahead.
We’d began with a 1-1 draw as we hosted Birmingham City, while 1-1 had also been the outcome in our first away fixture, at Watford, the following week. Then came our first win of the new campaign, 2-0 over Leyton Orient back at Roker; we stood in fourth place at the end of August - so far, so good, so it appeared.
However, and perhaps not too surprisingly, things then went slightly pear-shaped.
A 1-1 draw in the next away game (Millwall) and a narrow 1-0 home win (Swindon) the week after were sandwiched in between two rather inglorious 0-3 defeats, against Carlisle and Sheffield Wednesday at Roker and Hillsborough respectively - the latter reverse actually saw us slump to thirteenth in the table, a relatively poor standing in the ‘old Second Division’.
Our next fixture saw us host newly-promoted Preston North End: on paper, quite a tricky affair. ‘The Lilywhites,’ as they are also known, had made a promising start to life back in the Second Division, evidently moving with the same momentum which saw them lift the Third Division Championship at the end of the previous campaign. As such, they lay three places above us at the start of play.
But, as it happened, the game would turn out to be something of a thriller, while for one particular young Sunderland player, it was to prove to be a rather memorable occasion.
A touch of spice was also added to the match, as Preston were captained by former Roker favourite Jim McNab, who’d played a big part in our Second Division promotion campaign of 1963-64. Unsurprisingly, he received a fair amount of due applause from the home support before the game started. So, on a sunny afternoon in late September, McNab, having won the toss, set us the task of attacking the Fulwell End.
We began brightly, and after an initial attack had been halted due to a foul by Paddy Lowrey, we stayed on the offensive to grab a lead in only the third minute! Dennis Tueart started the move with some fine work on the right, his centre led to a fair bit of anxiety in the Preston defence, who were happy to concede a corner, with both Dave Watson and Paddy Lowrey threatening...
Bobby Kerr made it a long one to the far post and, when Dave Watson headed the ball down into the middle, Richie Pitt was presented with the simple task of seeing the ball home from point-blank range, if he were any closer to the goal line he wouldn’t have had anything to do.
We were near to a second goal soon afterwards. Martin Harvey sent Keith Coleman away on the left, the youngster played a one-two with Dennis Tueart, before driving the ball into the middle; Preston keeper John Brown had to be alert to collect the ball, with the marauding six-foot-two frame of Dave Watson once again threatening to take advantage.
Then, in the ninth minute, Preston stunned the home crowd by drawing level. A cross from Clive Clark picked out Ricky Hepplotte, whose own assist was turned past Jim Montgomery from close range by Bobby Ham.
Brian Chambers and Dennis Tueart then had us moving again and when Tueart was fouled, the free-kick led to a corner, taken by Bobby Kerr. Kerr’s kick picked out Richie Pitt in the middle, who looked to be a certain scorer, but he sent his effort narrowly wide. Play subsequently switched to the other end, Jim Montgomery had to race off his line to collect a Hugh McIlmoyle centre, battling against Clive Clark as he did so. We then looked certain to restore our lead, for a foul by Jim McNab on Bobby Kerr led to a free-kick, and Dick Malone’s kick picked out Dave Watson, but his powerful header was brilliantly saved by John Brown.
It had certainly been an action-packed opening period and - yet again - we came close to restoring our advantage; Richie Pitt set Dennis Tueart free, but after cutting inside, he sent his right-foot shot high over the top. Preston then responded, but a free-kick for a Martin Harvey foul on Bobby Ham came to nothing.
But our persistence eventually paid off. We took what appeared to be a decisive grip on the game - two goals in quick succession just before the interval will do that for you.
In the forty-first minute, Brian Chambers went on a strong run down the right, before squaring the ball to find Dave Watson. Watson came under fierce pressure, but he weathered the ensuing storm and was resolutely able to lay the ball off to Dennis Tueart, who cracked a powerful shot home.
Then, just three minutes later, a determined piece of work by Ian Porterfield set up another chance for Dave Watson, who once again came under strong challenge by the Preston defence - but when the ball broke loose, Dennis Tueart gleefully accepted the chance once again to give us a rather commanding 3-1 half-time lead.
No doubt the home support now anticipated further goals for their side in the second-half; a handsome home win would be just the tonic to alleviate the headache from our poor start. However, Preston began the second period in determined style, as they sought a route back into the game. Consequently, in the fifty-second minute they reduced the deficit from the penalty spot. Dennis Tueart was adjudged to have fouled Hugh McIlmoyle inside the area, despite his best efforts to contest the left-wing centre. McIlmoyle himself took the resulting spot-kick, leaving Jim Montgomery with no chance. Game was back on.
This goal seemed to breathe new life into the visitors. A free-kick taken by Alan Spavin looked to present further danger to our rearguard, but Jim Montgomery was able to collect the ball unchallenged. Then after two home attacks had failed to penetrate the Preston defence, Dennis Tueart was unlucky not to complete his hat-trick, for after having beaten Alex Spark, his shot was turned away by John Brown for a corner, which came to nothing.
It then appeared, in historically ominous Sunderland fashion, that our apparent failure up front would come back to haunt us. In the sixty-fourth minute, Preston drew level.
Bobby Ham, after receiving long pass, held off a challenge from Richie Pitt, before rolling the ball into the path of George Lyall, who beat Jim Montgomery with an admittedly well-placed shot.
If it wasn’t anyone’s game before, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was now. Dick Malone had a shot charged down, as we tried to restore our lead, but our earlier attacking impetus seemed to have evaporated; it was Preston who now persisted in looking the more dangerous side.
But it was then - in the seventy-fifth minute - that there came a match-changing (and ultimately winning) move, in the form of an inspired substitution by manager Alan Brown.
Sixteen-year-old Scot Jimmy Hamilton, who’d only joined us in the summer after leaving school, came on in place of Brian Chambers, who’d been injured in a challenge with John Bird - and what an impact he was to have! For after showing some initial neat touches, in the eighty-fifth minute, a centre from Ian Porterfield picked out his fellow countryman Hamilton at the far post - he showed quintessential youthful vigour as he outjumped the Preston defence to head us back in front. Great stuff!
We could well have added to our now-restored lead too, particularly when Ian Porterfield appeared to be clearly fouled inside the area, but much to the annoyance of both home players and fans alike, the referee ignored our appeals for a penalty. Not that it mattered much in retrospect, for the game ended 4-3 in our favour - and it had certainly been a fine afternoon’s entertainment for the rather disappointing home crowd of just over 13,000. The win also went some way to putting our campaign on a better trajectory, moving us two places up to the eleventh; it also served as a perfect morale-booster, with the Wear-Tees ‘derby’ only four days away.
As for our hero of the day, ‘super sub’ Jimmy Hamilton, his career at Roker would prove to be rather brief, as he went on to make only a handful of appearances for us before moving South to Plymouth early in 1976. No doubt he’d treasure forever the memory of his Sunderland debut though, which saw him turn out to be our match-winner, in true ‘Roy of The Rovers’ style. It surely couldn’t have been scripted any better!