The 13th place finish in Division One the previous season sounds like something to potentially build on, but in reality it was survival on the final day of the season courtesy of a win at Leicester City.
Len Ashurst had taken charge towards the end of the 1983-84 season following the sacking of Alan Durban and the summer of 1984 saw something of a reset.
The likes of Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, Ian Atkins, Lee Chapman, Leighton James, Gary Rowell, Rob Hindmarch and Paul Bracewell all left the club and a whole host of new arrivals joined the ranks including, Gary Bennett, Clive Walker, Peter Daniel and Howard Gayle.
The new season began well as four made their Sunderland debut at Roker in a 3-1 win over Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton and by early-November the Lads were sitting pretty in 7th after a convincing 3-0 win at home to Queens park Rangers.
Three days later was the visit of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for a League Cup third round replay, which would bring the Roker favourite back to his old stomping ground.
Ashurst’s side had already navigated a tricky second round tie against Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace over two legs and a week earlier the Lads had played out a 1-1 draw at the City Ground, where a Trevor Christie equaliser cancelled out a David Hodgson opener for Sunderland to force the replay.
The good form hadn’t gone unnoticed in the Roker boardroom, with stories already circulating of an offer of a new contract for Ashurst with chairman Tom Cowie talking publicly about the manager and his assistant Frank Burrows in the build-up to the game:
I think they will be here to grace the situation for many years to come. A contract is obviously very much on the cards. They have nothing to worry about.
It’s just a question of getting down to it. If they are happy to stay, I’m happy to keep them. I’m absolutely delighted the way things are going. It’s the first time in my association with the club that I have started to enjoy it. Len has brought the whole place alive.
The big news ahead of the game that Nick Pickering was dropped just 24 hours after a call-up to the England U21 squad, with the only reasoning from the manager being that nobody was assured of a place in the side.
Sunderland opened brightly against Forest, with Mark Proctor unlucky with driving shot that tested goalkeeper Steve Sutton in the early stages and Clive Walker going close with a free-kick.
The game got more fierce as the minutes ticked on, with tackles flying in that began to tip over the edge after the break. First it was Shaun Elliott who saw yellow after a hard tackle on Forest’s Paul Raynor, who wasn’t too happy with the challenge.
A minute later, Raynor was booked along with Gary Bennett for a goalmouth scuffle and a minute after that, Raynor went in hard on Bennett and received a second yellow card for his efforts. On the sidelines, Clough made his feelings perfectly clear of the officials decision.
For the rest of the 90 minutes, the home side struggled to create clear cut chances while Forest looked dangerous on the rare occasions they got into our half despite the disadvantage of being a man down.
Sunderland stepped it up in extra-time and Clough had Sutton to thank in the Forest goal with a string of saves that had his manager applauding on the sidelines. But in the 110th minute, he was finally beaten with an individual goal from Howard Gayle, who took it past two with a run from the halfway line before finishing from 25-yards.
After the game however, Gayle wasn’t impressed with his own performance:
I should have been substituted. I was rubbish. It was the only thing I did all night. I honestly thought I was the one who was going to be substituted. This game is now out of the way and we can get on with our league match at Watford on Saturday.
Clough, who usually had so much to say on any given topic, left Roker park without comment.
Tuesday 6th November, 1984
League Cup 3rd Round Replay
Sunderland 1-0 Nottingham Forest (aet)
[Gayle 110’ - (Raynor sent-off 49’)]
Sunderland: Turner, Venison, Bennett, Elliott, Daniel, Hodgson, Berry, Proctor, Walker, Wylde (West), Gayle
Nottingham Forest: Sutton, Mills, Swain, Metgod, Fairclough, Bowyer, Wigley, Hodge, Raynor, Riley, Walsh Substitute not used: Christie