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Sunderland had lost four games in succession and were languishing in eighteenth place to the disappointment of the board and new chairman Tom Cowie, as well as the fans. It must be said there was a general view amongst the support that we were not too far away from having an excellent team that could compete at the top end of the table, despite results and our lowly position.
Having conceded to the local press that his thoughts were now on consolidation rather than winning a place in Europe, Ken Knighton was also faced with some healthy selection dilemmas for this game against the Gunners. John Hawley, Alan Brown, Pop Robson were all declared fit to play, and Gary Rowell was rumoured to be ready to return too.
The manager was in bullish fettle regarding the returning John Hawley, doing his best to dispel a growing view that the big centre forward was injury-prone.
Hawley had been procured from Leeds in September 1979 by Knighton for £120,000 plus Wayne Entwistle. He had scored sixteen goals in his last season with Leeds and had notched five in six games at the start of the season before injury had struck!
The boss was pleased to have Hawley back in the squad and said that the team had missed his strength and firepower. The manager added that he did not expect Hawley to recreate his form from the start of the season straight away but was very glad to have him back in the squad. With Pop Robson also fit it must have been tempting to play both returnees up front given Pop’s predatory instincts off a big target man.
Arsenal were not without selection dilemmas themselves before this game. John Hollins and David O’Leary were injured and Alan Sunderland was suspended. David Price, Brian McDermott, and Steve Walford would step in for the Gunners.
There was a strong wind blowing toward the Roker End in Sunderland’s favour as the game got underway in front of just under 22,000 fans.
Despite playing against the strong wind, Arsenal looked the more likely, with some composed possession and slick passing in the first few minutes of the game. What was quickly apparent to me and most other fans watching, was the effort and fight from the Roker lads, typified by an all-action box-to-box display from Shaun Elliott playing in the mid-field and rampaging full-back Joe Bolton.
Breaking into the Arsenal box on four minutes, Stan Cummins beat his marker and slid a lovely pass to the express train that was Joe Bolton. The resulting shot was more in danger of punching a hole in the scoreboard as he sent the ball well over the bar when it might have been easier to score, but it set the tone for a humdinger of a game.
The game see-sawed in terms of dominance as Sunderland began to wrest the midfield away from the visitors, with Arnott beginning to weave a bit of his magic and Cummins popping up all over the pitch and always likely to go past his defender. Whitworth and Bolton were venturing more down their flanks in their own characteristic styles as Allardyce and Hindmarch got to grips with their defensive duties.
Then, on twenty-three minutes one of those moments in a game where time seems to slow down as you watch in ‘slo-mo’ and afterward you are just glad you were in the ground to witness the event!
As the ball hung awkwardly in the wind just inside the Gunners half, Joe Bolton charged after it and won not one but two 50/50 tackles, (the like of which would probably have seen him sent off today). As he charged into the second tackle the ball broke to John Hawley, standing about five yards in from the halfway line and just outside the centre circle. He was surrounded by three defenders moving in on him as he dug the ball out of his feet and released a thunderbolt of a shot.
From my vantage point in the Fulwell End I watched the ball in my own time zone as it flew straight and true with ‘Top Binns’ written all over it! Pat Jennings despairing outstretched arm only added to the picture as the back of the net almost lifted off and the crowd roared and roared its approval.
What a strike by the returning forward, who had looked knackered and in his post-match interview, volunteered as much, saying the only reason he struck the shot was he was so tired.
The goal certainly provoked Arsenal who came back at us, with Brian Talbot pulling their strings to good effect.
A dangerous cross into our box saw Walford meet the ball with a ferocious header and direct it toward the near corner of our goal. It looked like it was going in from where I was standing, but Steve Whitworth managed to get a foot to it and clear it away. In the resultant melee, the ball again broke to Walford but Turner was swiftly off his line to dive at his feet and avert the danger.
The second half got underway with the Gunners having the advantage of the strong wind. I can remember thinking we could have done with the comfort of a second goal as most of us watching anticipated a Gunners onslaught.
It was Sunderland though who launched the first meaningful attack as Cummins and Hawley manufactured an opportunity for Arnott driving into the box and pulling a really good save from Jennings.
Price then caused palpitations in the home support with a wicked thirty-five yard shot that caught in the wind and looked goalbound. Not for the first time in this game, Turner came to the rescue with a fantastic save that saw the ball go for a corner.
John Cooke came on for the cramping Alan Brown and almost had an immediate impact. Joe Bolton won the ball in his left back position and played an accurate ball to Cooke, who had Scottish International defender Willie Young right at his back. With a feint and a swivel Cooke put so much daylight between himself and Young, the big defender almost had to pay to get back into the ground! Eating up the ground and with Young trailing in his wake, the red-headed forward carried the ball into and across the box skipping past Walford, with Jennings advancing off his line he arrowed the ball past him into what looked like an empty net. Unfortunately for Cooke, Walford had continued to track back and just got to the ball to clear it off the line. It was a sublime piece of football from Cooke, and would have been another memorable goal from this game had it gone in.
On seventy-seven minutes Arsenal almost got their equaliser as Hindmarch and Allardyce got in each other’s way and Walford picked the loose ball up and charged toward goal with only Turner to beat. The Sunderland goalie was in fine form in this game and closed the space at a rate of knots, forcing the shot wide of its mark.
The game continued to see-saw and the result was in doubt right up to the last knockings’ as Whitworth found Arnott with a good pass on the edge of the Gunners box. With his back to goal and Young once again in very close attendance, he shielded the ball into the box one way and then the other, he then feinted to turn to the bye-line and sat the big Arsenal stopper on his backside as he jinked back in creating just enough space to get a shot away.
An inch to the left and it would have hit the post, an inch to the right and Jennings outstretched dive would have diverted the ball, it slid straight and truly nestled delightfully in the side netting for a classy goal beating one of the best goalkeepers in the world and sealing the points to the delight of the home fans.
Two very different but nonetheless memorable goals won this game for the Lads. Hawley is often remembered for his forty-yard pile-driver and, had it not been for injuries could have played an even bigger role for Sunderland. He scored eleven goals in twenty-five league appearances which included two hattricks. Alan Durban deemed him surplus to requirements prior to the start of season 1981/82 and he was sold to Arsenal, whose manager Terry Neil had given Hawley his debut at Hull and was gracious after this game in his post-match comments not only toward his protégé but to Sunderland’s fighting performance.
Arsenal finished in third position as their title ambitions slipped away. Sunderland under Knighton continued to flirt with relegation, though the statistics would show they were never in the relegation places all season. It took a fantastic victory at Anfield on the final day of the season to secure our top division status. By this point Knighton had (some would say harshly) been sacked by new chairman Tom Cowie, who had not enjoyed a good relationship with his manager.
On this day though that was some way off as the victory lifted us to the lofty heights of seventeenth and two cracking goals warmed us all as we headed home into a cold December evening.
Date - 13th December 1980
Venue - Roker Park
Attendance - 21,595
Sunderland 2 - 0 Arsenal
Sunderland - Turner, Bolton, Whitworth, Hindmarch, Allardyce, Arnott (88mins), Chisholm, Elliott, Cummins, Brown (Cooke), Hawley (23mins)
Arsenal - Jennings, Devine, Sansom, Walford, Young, Talbot, McDermott, Gatting (Vaessen), Price, Stapleton, Davis