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On This Day (20th Dec 1981): “Could 1973 hero Dave Watson be about to return to Sunderland?”

The sports pages were awash with Sunderland news and gossip. The return of a 1973 legend as well as the end of another’s career? Our team being picked by Royal Mail, whilst the best goalkeeper since Monty’ is about to be sold! Our young guns scupper City in a fantastic away victory! 

Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

I had returned from a fantastic away day at Maine Road in the early hours of Sunday morning, looking forward to reading about our unlikely yet fully deserved victory in the sports pages after our three-two win against Man City.

Our young guns – Pickering, McCoist, and Venison – had played a crucial part in the victory, and heading into the busy festive period at the bottom of the table, I was hoping we had turned a corner in our bid to pull away from relegation.

As I pored over the papers, it was the news about transfers in and out that grabbed my immediate attention, and I found myself yo-yoing between excitement and disappointment, bordering on dejection, at the decisions being taken by the hierarchy.

My excitement was around Alan Durban’s reported pursuit of ex-Sunderland legend (and one of my all-time favourites) Dave Watson. I could hardly contain myself; his poster had adorned my bedroom wall in three different abodes since he first signed for us in 1970, and even when he was transferred in 1975, it stayed up! Now at the age of thirty-five, Durban was trying to bring him “home” to Roker.

I was totally convinced this would be a great move and just what we needed to pull away from relegation. Watson was a superb athlete with legendary powers of durability. In four and a half seasons with us, he played 209 out of a possible 218 games in all competitions. He had an immense leap and heading ability, which was even more incredible considering he was only six feet tall; his timing and athleticism seemed to make him appear taller.

He would join Jeff Clarke (who had come to Sunderland in the deal that took Watson to Man City) in the centre of our defence, augmented by young Rob Hindmarch, who would benefit enormously from the presence of Watson and Clarke. Durban had a plan, and I for one was backing him on that Sunday morning!

In parallels with the situation currently at Sunderland, there was a pay scale (and limit) in operation. The manager appeared to be the decision-maker (with Tom Cowie having the final say)! Durban was indicating he was going to have to smash the pay scale to meet Watson’s demands, and that Southampton wanted an extra £20,000 after twenty games on top of the £50,000 fee.

“Go for it” was my only thought. I had seen Watson’s home debut against Boro’ on Boxing Day 1970, and he had followed up his goal-scoring debut at Watford with an all-action performance in the centre-forward position that Alan Brown had bought him to play. One of my regrets, and surely a ‘sliding doors’ moment for Sunderland in this period, was that we never got to see Colin Todd and Watson play central defence as a pair! They did play four games together, but Watson played up front, and Todd was sold in early February of that season to Brian Clough at Derby County.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Photocall Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

After Brown was sacked in October 1972, caretaker manager Billy Elliott moved Watson back to centre-half, and incoming manager Bob Stokoe kept him there for all but a game or two in attack. His performances in the FA Cup run to the final and victory in 1973 earned him a call-up to the England squad, and he made his international debut on the 3rd of April 1974 against Portugal. He would win fourteen caps as a Sunderland player, playing in Division Two, and was sitting on sixty-three caps when Alan Durban came back in for him in December 1981.

A few days later, we learned the deal had fallen through, and much to my disappointment, the legend went to Stoke City, where he helped them avoid the drop (finishing just above us) and he picked up a further two caps for England.

Another item that caught my attention was the news that City’s Dennis Tueart had sustained a career-threatening injury (ruptured Achilles tendon) in our game the previous day. The 1973 hero had been stretchered off during the game and looked in a lot of pain. Had things worked out differently, he too might have been back at Sunderland along with Watson; a £60,000 deal had been agreed earlier in the season with Man City, but injuries saw Tueart back in the City first team and the deal fell through.

One bit of news that day that had me shaking my head in disbelief was Durban’s stance on his two goalkeepers. The manager had in his squad the best young keeper since Montgomery, but he appeared not to know this! Barry Siddall was a good keeper, but Chris Turner was an exceptional young talent, and I thought a future England goalkeeper. Durban was preferring Siddall over Turner, and I suspected he was engineering a transfer.

As it turned out, Turner stayed and won his place back, becoming the outright first choice in the 1982/83 season until his record £275,000 transfer to Man United in 1985. I did eventually get around to reading about our victory against City the previous day.

In what had been a cracking team performance, our young lads had played really well. McCoist had delivered a clever performance full of guile and enthusiasm that hinted at things to come. Nick Pickering looked a right handful going forward and had covered some ground in defence.

Barry Venison had come on at right-back for Joe Hinnigan in the last third of the game and scored a cracking goal to win the points. Stan Cummins had scored a great goal to take the lead, and Gary Rowell had pulled us level at a crucial juncture in the game.

For me, though, Shaun Elliott had been the player of the match. He had played in midfield and, allegedly, did not like playing there, but he made a complete nuisance of himself with the city midfield and had worked box to box the whole game.

A little story on the back pages did make me smile. It was reported that Venison might not have been on the pitch if the Royal Mail had not intervened! Durban had signed Jimmy Nicholl from Man United on loan until the end of the season a day or two before the city game. His registration had somehow become lost between being signed off at Roker and delivered to Lytham St Annes.

Consequently, Nicholl watched the game from the stand, and Venison scored a worldie.

C’est la vie!

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