Sunderland’s quest for promotion in the 1979-80 season under Ken Knighton was going to plan by the time they ventured to Deepdale for their clash with struggling Preston North End, where things took a little wobble.
Knighton’s men had scored goals for fun in their previous three games, bagging 14 goals and 7 points after a 5-0 and 4-2 win against Burnley and Oldham, along with a 3-3 draw with Cambridge, with many of these goals coming from leading striker Alan Brown.
With just one defeat in their previous eight, the Lads were expected to be able to deal with a Preston side who were struggling for consistency in performance and results at the time - though, the opposite turned out to be the case.
Unfortunately, they were becoming a bit of a bogey team for the North East clubs with them taking three points off now Sunderland and Newcastle - both of whom who had promotion aspirations.
Described as ‘sloppy’ by John Barrett in the Sunday Sun, Knighton’s Sunderland gave themselves a mountain to climb when Preston went 2-0 up by the 51st minute. The first half performance was ‘disappointing’, with Kevin Arnott’s shot from a free kick in the 14th minute being the only chance of substance from the away side.
Scottish footballer Alex Bruce went close for the home side on two separate occasions - a shot wide and a great save from Chris Turner, with the article suggesting that Preston were the best team in the in a game which was described as ‘exciting at times, and quiet in other periods’.
They broke the deadlock in the 33rd minute with a little help from Sunderland defender Rob Hindmarch, who nodded into his own net.
The hard-working and talented Graham Bell got through on the left as Steve Whitworth slipped, and his cross was headed into his own net by Hindmarch from six yards.
After a half decent chance for Pop Robson and the away side, Preston should have made it 2-0 - but for a decent save from Turner in the Sunderland goal ensuring that the away side only went in 1-0 at the break.
In the 51st minute, the Black Cats were deflated by the concession of Preston’s second goal - with Bell in the home side prominent once more.
In a game where few chances were created for Knighton’s men, it took a piece of magic from their talisman Alan Brown to notch his 11th goal of the season - and give Sunderland hope.
With nice build up play from Stan Cummins and and the aforementioned Arnott, Brown showed ‘coolness’ inside the box before beating Trunks in the Preston North End goal.
It appeared that there may have been a comeback on the cards after we began to create through decent openings through Brown and Jeff Clarke - two of Sunderland’s best players on the day - but the hopes of the away side’s ‘huge following’ dissippated when Brown limped off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Mick Coady replaced Brown and within a few minutes, the midfielder came close to equalising from a corner with a volley. Unfortunately, this was as good as it got, with the final few minutes scuppered and destroyed by niggly tackles and ill discipline from the away side who appeared enraged with themselves that they were on the brink of losing the game.
After the match, Ken Knighton expressed his frustration at the result and with losing his leading marksman Brown.
I was disappointed with the performance.
I couldn't blame Rob Hindmarch for the own goal, players have to attack the ball and he was trying to put it over the top.
And as for Brown?
It’s too early to talk in terms of how many weeks Alan may be out. We will have to wait and see, but we should know on Monday.
It was a real sickener that Alan got injured. I thought when it was 2-1 that we were back in the match and would put them under pressure.
Brown always looked dangerous throughout the match.
Luckily, the away form picked up from this point - and clearly played a massive part in Sunderland’s eventual promotion to Division One in second place behind Leicester City, who were the eventual winners.