Ask a Sunderland fan about when the Lads played against Tottenham Hotspur in 1984-85 and they will most likely tell you about the two sides’ Milk Cup replay in which an inspired Chris Turner helped bring a dramatic victory en route to the final. The teams had already played out a notable fixture in the league by that point however, when despite an early season injury crisis Len Ashurst’s men scrapped their way to an impressive win.
The points may have looked unlikely before kick off on this day in 1984, with the manager having to deal with several absences as he picked his starting XI. Senior players Ian Atkins, Gordon Chisholm, Howard Gayle and Mark Proctor were all unavailable, as was youngster David Corner - who had impressed on his first team debut three days earlier only to find himself ending up on the treatment table too.
Also missing out was new boy David Hodgson, who, like Corner, had supported Sunderland whilst growing up and hoped to emulate one day those he watched from the stands. Arriving from Liverpool 11 days prior to the game this was the second time he had worked for the club having previously sold Roker Bingo tickets as a child, but the long-awaited fulfilment of a boyhood dream was put back further when, after featuring in the two away trips that preceded the visit of Spurs, Hodgson also joined the ever-growing injury list.
It was towards the end of October before he finally got to play for the Lads at Roker Park, but for now Ashurst had to focus on those that he could get out onto the pitch. It meant a sooner than expected recall into the heart of defence for Gary Bennett, himself deemed only to be 70% fit by the manager, plus the debut of another recent recruit in Peter Daniel. Like Bennett, this was far from ideal for the midfielder, who was being rushed back into action without a proper break or real pre-season following his summer involvement with the Minnesota Strikers in the North American Soccer League, and the patched up nature of the squad was further emphasised by the appearance of Paul Lemon on the bench.
The homegrown talent would go on to enjoy an encouraging first season in senior football, but this was his first time as a substitute and in the early stages it looked like the visitors would have too much for their depleted opposition. The reigning UEFA Cup holders started well and could easily have taken a quick lead, but Gary Stevens was unable to fully capitalise on their best opening when he blazed over after Colin West had lost possession. It was a rare slip from the Sunderland striker however, and in time he would prove to have the much cooler head when presented with his own chance.
The game was a physical affair, but West was well up for the battle and worked hard throughout. Daniel and Bennett gave everything they could too, as did the rest of the team despite being on the end of some nasty-looking challenges. Spurs were a quality side that included Sunderland-born Micky Hazard, but they allowed themselves to lose focus – going after the man rather than the ball on several occasions. This was proven to be the case on the stroke of half time when Graham Roberts was dismissed following an off the ball clash with West.
Sunderland started slowly building momentum after the incident and Ray Clemence had to make two top saves to deny Nick Pickering. He would concede a penalty as the game entered the final stages though when another new face on Wearside timed his run into the box perfectly only to be wiped out – Steve Berry the victim and West the grateful recipient as he blasted the spot kick down the middle of the Roker End goal.
Tony Galvin had been cautioned for upending Shaun Elliott and Steve Perryman went into the book for a bad tackle on an in the wars West, but if Spurs were somewhat ill-disciplined before going behind, they well and truly lost control thereafter and ended proceedings with only nine men – Clive Allen, already on a warning for dissent, being given his marching orders for a ridiculous challenge on Turner even though he’d already collected the ball.
Battered and bruised, the Rokerites held out for what was a very good win in the circumstances. People reading the match reports the following morning may have noted that Spurs finished at a disadvantage and simply assumed this was an easy night for Sunderland, yet they had looked shaky in the opening stages amidst the player shortages and been forced to grow into things.
The Spurs success proved to be a good fillip for the injury woes and the side entered a run of reasonable form. Bar the popular Atkins, who wouldn’t play for the club again prior to his Everton switch later in the year, Sunderland’s stricken soon started returning the scene over the coming weeks and by the time of that Milk Cup tie against Tottenham the Lads seemed in decent shape – for the time anyway; an alarming dip that would follow later meant the campaign would end with relegation and a Wembley defeat, after which everybody at SAFC was feeling sick.
Tuesday 4 September 1984
Canon League Division One
Sunderland 1 (West 81)
Tottenham Hotspur 0
Sunderland: Turner; Venison, Bennett, Elliott, Pickering; Berry, Daniel, Wylde, Atkinson; West, Walker. Unused: Lemon
Roker Park, attendance 18,895