A dismal run of nine games without a victory and eleven weeks at the bottom of Division One had even the most ardent Sunderland fan fearing the worst.
The squad was missing the experience and skill of the departed Hurley and Mulhall, George Herd had joined the coaching staff, and in a move that had mystified many fans, Colin Suggett had been sold to West Brom in the close season (albeit becoming our first £1000,000 sale) — but where were our goals going to come from?
There were some good young players in the squad like Kerr, Hughes, Tueart, Pitt, and of course Colin Todd. Mick McGiven and Bobby Park had been given debuts this season and looked good prospects, but something was not clicking. We were not scoring goals, and were struggling to stop the goals going in.
Experienced players Joe Baker and Gordon Harris were struggling to exert any consistent influence, and a bust-up between manager Brown and one of our most creative young players, over tactics and formation saw Ian Porterfield confined to the reserves for a whole season.
Porterfield and Brown had crossed swords on the pre-season tour to West Germany. Brown was persisting with a 4-3-3 formation with Billy Hughes outside right, Joe Baker centre forward and Porterfield outside left, with instructions to chase back.
After a 4-0 defeat against Eintracht Brunswick, Porterfield challenged the gaffer about the formation and tactics. Brown allegedly told the midfield maestro he was doing a good job for the team. Despite the compliment Porterfield persisted and Brown, though not overly animated at the time had his revenge for the “public” challenge.
Porterfield never played a game for the first team that season. He had to train with the junior players and was often listed as sub or outside left for the reserves.
Things got so bad that he considered giving up the game - he was eventually granted a transfer, but as far as he knew nobody came in for him. The reality was interest from teams such as Bolton, Leeds, Liverpool and Middlesborough was being rebuffed by the club. It is a sad tale at a time of such creative need for the team.
Dennis Tueart and Joe Baker were injured/ill and unavailable for this game, so Bruce Stuckey was recalled to the wing and John Lathan would make his full debut having come on as sub in the midweek defeat at Elland Road.
At seventeen and a half years old, weighing in at 11 stone and a height of five foot six inches, Lathan was a diminutive figure for a centre forward. Those of us who had seen him play for the youth team knew we had a forward of some promise — was it fair to expect that promise to flourish in the white heat of a relegation battle?
Southampton were in trouble too at the wrong end of the table, only a point better off than us. It’s a cliché, but most footballing aficionados thought the Saints were “too good to go down”. They had some very experienced players, including Hugh Fisher, Jimmy Gabriel, Terry Paine, Ron Davies, and ex-Newcastle centre half John McGrath. They also had a young forward called Mick Channon who was creating a bit of a stir.
The first half was a real struggle for Sunderland — I really thought we were going to get hammered as the visitors tore into us, with Channon and Ron Davies looking likely every time they ventured forward.
Southampton had clearly come for the victory and looked like they were going to get it. Montgomery made two great saves, and then required treatment after coming out to smother the ball at Channon’s feet. Brian Heslop was struggling to contain Ron Davies who had a couple of good headers sail just over the bar and past the post.
Hugh Fisher was at the heart of a lot of Southampton’s best work and sent a sizzling twenty-yarder just over Monty’s bar.
There was plenty of industry and effort from Sunderland but no end product. Hughes did have a couple of promising runs that came to nothing. Lathan in a good position directed a header against Gabriel’s leg and just around the post, and Gordon Harris put a good headed chance over the bar.
One Sunderland player who grew into the half was Bobby Park.
His cross-field passing was very accurate and he had an economical way of receiving/delivering the ball. He was also deceptively quick - it was a shame he never got to establish his game alongside Porterfield in this season.
Somehow, we reached half-time at 0-0. It was remarkable given Southampton’s dominance, but I remember thinking that this augured well for us in the second half!
The first eight minutes of the second half were even more one-sided (if that was possible) than the first half. I was really beginning to despair. Right out of the blue, a great passage of play from Park to McGiven, saw John Lathan turn McGrath inside out on the byline. His low cross was cleverly flicked on by Harris to Stuckey, who rammed the ball into the net for his only goal in the league that season.
Harris, McGiven and Lathan manufactured another great chance for Stuckey minutes after the goal. His angled drive looked like it was heading in at the far post, but Fisher just got a toe to it deflecting the ball around the post.
The play was now end to end, with the shackles off Sunderland and Southampton determined to get something out of the game. On seventy-five minutes Channon picked the ball up in the middle of Sunderland’s half. He easily beat Heslop and Irwin in a streaky run and put his shot through Monty’s legs to claim the equaliser.
Despite the setback, we continued to go for the victory, with the Roker crowd now fully invested and roaring their support from the stands.
With an attack coming to nothing we were caught upfield by a long clearance that was challenged for by Todd and the veritable giant Ron Davies. The ball fell to Channon who raced forward and cracked a great shot from twenty yards out. From my position behind the goal, it looked to me like a goal all the way, but Monty had other ideas and with a cat-like leap he stretched a hand to make contact with the ball, which deflected, but inside the post for Channon’s second of the game and the lead!
The disappointment in the ground was palpable and we probably all expected the game to peter out for yet another defeat. This did not happen though and the Lads quickly got the crowd going again, with Park, Todd, Harris, and Hughes looking like they were not going to go quietly!
With less than five minutes to go and with Sunderland swarming all over Southampton, Park received a ball from Stuckey on the edge of the box. In one deft swift movement he cannoned a low drive toward goal. With a poacher’s instinct, John Lathan put a toe to the shot and deflected it past Martin in the Southampton goal for a well-deserved equaliser.
What a second half it had been and what a fight we had put up to get back into the game. We were off the bottom of the division for the first time in eleven weeks.
As we walked out of Roker Park that evening I detected a feeling of renewed hope — was this the start of the comeback?
History of course will tell you there was no comeback. We won only four more games that season and continued to struggle to score goals, with Harris our top scorer on seven (three of which were penalties) and Hughes, Tueart and McGiven on four goals each for the season. Relegation for the second time in our history (with Sheffield Wednesday) was our fate at the end of the campaign.
John Lathan went on to make five more appearances that season but did not score again. The records will show he scored and got an assist on his full debut though, which is not a bad start for a young’un!
Date - 22/11/1969
Venue - Roker Park
Attendance - 15,385
Sunderland 2 - 2 Southampton
Sunderland - Montgomery, Irwin, Ashurst, Heslop, Todd, McGiven, Stuckey (1), Harris, Park, Hughes, Lathan (1), Sub - Kerr
Southampton - Martin, Kirkup. Byrne, Gabriel, McGrath, Fisher, Paine, Channon (2), Sydenham, Walker, Davies, Sub - Kemp