In Alan Durban’s first season in charge at Roker, a home win over John Bond’s Manchester City on the final day of the 1981-82 season was enough to ensure Sunderland’s top flight status for another year - but progress was expected in the following campaign.
Faith in the younger players such as Nick Pickering, Barry Venison and Nick Pickering was the path forward and only Ian Atkins was added to the squad in the summer of 1982 ahead of the season opener - which was a daunting task away to the current European Cup holders Aston Villa.
Despite all odds, the Lads came away from Villa Park with a 3-1 victory which they then backed up with a draw against Notts County and a win over West Ham United - with both coming at Roker Park. Top four after three games - so far, so good.
However, the cracks began to show with a run of four successive defeats, the last of which was a demoralising 8-0 defeat at the hands of Graham Taylor’s Watford at Vicarage Road. The reaction was predictable and it was seven long days until the next opportunity came to put things right, which Durban discussed at length in the days leading up to the visit of Norwich City to Roker Park:
It’s been a long week for me. The first thing that hit me after the Watford game was that there was no midweek match to put it right. If I don’t sense that the defeat last week is hurting one or two players then you could find one of the earliest ever substitutions.
Injuries had been an issue, with Atkins and Stan Cummins carrying knocks and an achilles tendon problem had meant defender Shaun Elliott had missed the previous three games where Sunderland had conceded 12 goals. Durban also discussed the return of Elliott as well as carrying players with knocks in previous weeks:
Shaun has done very well this week and has shown by his attitude that he is keen to get back. He is all right now and , as we will be looking to put things right against Norwich, having Shaun available again is a step in the right direction.
I don’t want anyone to have excuses this time. Atkins played with a false bravado last week and paid for it. Both he and Stan have had injuries and I want them completely fit. Despite both of them wanting to play, I don’t think they will make it.
The absence of Cummins provided an opportunity for 20-year-old John Cooke to deputise after observing the capitulation at Watford the previous Saturday as the unused substitute, which Durban also commented on:
John Cooke has become a better professional over the last six months. He is quite capable of holding down a regular place with concentration. He will be given his chance in three or four league games.
Two or three clubs from the lower leagues want to buy him and he knows of their interest. But John still feels he has a future at this club and tomorrow he will have the chance to grab it.
Both sides came out of the blocks in a lively first half, where good opportunities to break the deadlock at either end went begging, with Cooke impressing, as described in John Barratt’s match report in the Sunday Sun:
Cooke, replacing Stan Cummins, who isn’t fully fit following a knee injury, gave a lively display and there were other particularly noteworthy Roker performances in an all-round team display which smacked of great determination. It was amazing that a first half of open attacking football from both sides didn’t produce a goal.
Despite the Lads threatening, it was the away side, with a team containing future Sunderland striker Keith Bertschin, future manager Martin O’Neill and his coach Steve Walford, who carved the better of the opportunities.
With only a few minutes on the clock, a Bertschin header hit the bar and around ten minutes later he had a goal ruled out for offside. Sunderland also had chances, Venison shot over the bar and Chris Woods, who was on the books at Sunderland during the final season at Roker Park, made two impressive stops from Ally McCoist efforts.
It went into the break goalless but it only took six minutes of the second half to witness the opening goal and it was Gary Rowell who drove home past Woods with his left foot from the edge of the area.
A second was added with around 20 minutes left on the clock when McCoist got onto the end of a ball forward by Mick Buckley to finish from the edge of the box to claim his third of the season - which even at this early stage matched his total number of goals for the previous season.
Around five minutes later the game was finished as a contest when Rowell again beat Woods with a left foot finish, this time beating the keeper at the near post following a Venison pass.
With ten minutes left on the clock, it was Rowell the provider this time, with Cooke being the recipient, as he latched on to Rowell’s cross to finish from close range. There was still time for the visitors to claim a consolation, which they did in some style via an impressive free-kick from Dave Bennett with a few minutes remaining.
The victory put Durban’s side up to the dizzy heights of 15th in the Division One table - a position they wouldn’t rise above for the rest of the season.
Saturday 2nd October, 1982
Sunderland 4-1 Norwich City
[Rowell 50’, 74’, McCoist 69’, Cooke 80’ - Bennett 87’]
Sunderland: Turner, Nicholl, Munro, Venison, Hindmarch, Elliott, Buckley, Rowell, McCoist, Pickering, Cooke Substitute not used: Chisholm
Norwich City: Woods, Haylock, Downs, McGuire, Walford, Walsh, Barham, O’Neill, Deehan, Bertschin, Bennett Substitute not used: Mountford