On this day 37 years ago, Sunderland defeated Leeds United 4-2 at Roker Park - a victory that would rank as one of the few highlights of Lawrie McMenemy’s disastrous tenure as manager.
Chairman Tom Cowie had failed in his bid to bring Brian Clough back to Roker following relegation in 1984/85 season, and instead turned his attention to another North Easterner in Lawrie McMenemy. He got his man, in the face of competition from Arsenal, thanks to the sizeable pay packet on offer and the promise of serious funds for players to mount a serious promotion challenge.
With his success at Southampton combined with his north east roots, “Lawrie Mac” appeared to be great fit for Sunderland, and there was a real sense of anticipation, even excitement, as we set off into season 85/86.
The former Saints boss followed his trusted script and bought a number of experienced “big” signings to the club. These included Frank Gray, George Burley, Alan Kennedy and Eric Gates. On paper the squad looked more than capable of making an immediate return to the top flight.
What ensued was something resembling a horror show as well as a massive disappointment.
By the time we got to the Leeds game, we had lost 12 and drawn five of our 25 league games. We also had failed to score more than two goals in any game bar one - a calamitous 3-3 draw at Roker with Grimsby.
The police had placed crowd restrictions on this fixture and an all-ticket crowd of 15,139 turned up more in hope than expectation. Leeds though were not having the best of seasons themselves - and former Leeds legend and current manager Billy Bremner was feeling the pressure as he was the third of the Revie Invincibles (Eddie Gray and Allan Clarke before him) to struggle to re-ignite the failing giant.
Right from kick-off Sunderland were at it. With Mark Proctor leading the way, the youngsters of Paul Atkinson, Barry Venison and Nick Pickering shone.
Pickering scored an absolute peach of a first goal after the referee played an advantage following a foul on Proctor. Pickering, who combined pace with stamina in his game generally, set off on a mazy run that eventually took him to the edge of the Leeds box from whence he cannonballed a right foot shot past the helpless Mervyn Day. 1-0 and nothing more than we deserved as the Lads continued to dominate the game in all areas of the park.
There was no further scoring as we reached half-time and warm applause accompanied the Lads off the pitch.
There is an age-old maxim in football that you need to score whilst you are on top. Having bossed the game in the first half, Leeds contrived to score with what might have been their first meaningful attack of the game. Ian Baird scoring within two minutes of the second half resuming, after John Sheridan and Andy Ritchie combined to set him up.
The tension triggered in the home crowd was short-lived as two minutes after Baird’s goal, Pickering scored again. A fine ball from Alan Kennedy (sadly we just did not see enough of this from the international full-back during his time with us) saw Pickering out-pace and out-muscle Denis Irwin to shoot home from a tight angle.
On 67 minutes Ian Wallace scored his first goal of the season, nudging in from close range to increase our lead to 3-1.
Whilst deserved, this lead was unchartered territory for the Lads in the McMenemy era and sure enough on 71 minutes John Sheridan reduced the deficit to one with a well-taken goal for Leeds.
The game was more of a contest now as Leeds pushed for the equaliser that they hardly deserved, and we played on the break, raiding with pace and numbers.
In the dying minutes of the game Neil Aspin held David Corner as a cross came in, and the referee immediately awarded a penalty with little complaint from the Leeds defence. Up stepped Nick Pickering to slot the kick and claim his hattrick to send the Roker faithful away home happy.
Any hopes of this result triggering a revival were quickly quashed the following week at Roker with a dismal 2-1 reverse to Millwall. It really was a dirge of a season and relegation to the third division was looking more than likely.
We only won four more games after the Leeds result. These were our last four games at home that season, which effectively saved us from the drop. McMenemy’s gesture of waving a white handkerchief by way of an apology at the end of the final game was lauded by some, but not by this writer - I felt he had surrendered a long time before the end of the season, and his moonlight flit was no surprise the following season.
Nick Pickering and Barry Venison had continued to give hope to die-hard fans (along with Atkinson and Armstrong) that season. Pickering left within a fortnight of his hattrick for Coventry City, and Venison transferred to Liverpool at the end of this season. A great loss at a time when the team could ill-afford it.
Nonetheless, Nick Pickering’s hattrick can be remembered as a highlight in a season that promised so much but delivered little!
Sunderland 4-2 Leeds Utd
Roker Park. Crowd 15,139.
Pickering 3, Wallace
Sunderland: Bolder, Kennedy, Burley, Agboola, Corner, Proctor, Atkinson, Pickering, Venison, Gates, Wallace. Sub Armstrong.
Leeds: Day, Irwin, Harrison, Snodin, Linighan, Aspin, Ritchie, Harte, Baird, Sheridan, Dickenson. Sub Sellars.