This game has been written about many times in Sunderland annals - but there is no harm in re-living a momentous victory on our nearest and dearest’s patch.
It might be worth sharing my pre-match experience on this day so that others might benefit. It’s a salutary tale of poor decision-making and a dearth of risk aversiveness.
My day began early enough. Coming from Morpeth there was always a debate about travel plans to the derby at St James. We met for a quick pint in Morpeth and then headed to the Toon on a normal service bus. We had planned to meet up with some of the Ashington lads in the backroom of the Haymarket Pub for pre-match beers…..and a bit of friendly banter with the locals!
There was probably around 25 of us by the time we all had arrived and the back room of the Haymarket was seeming like a good plan as the beers and banter started to flow.
We had just had a chat about going up to the ground after one last round when things kind of went awry. I had a tray of just-bought drink and turned from the bar, just as the window was battered and smashed. A helmeted Newcastle thug with a flag around his neck was roaring inaudibly and trying to get in through the window.
My tray of just-bought drinks went all over the floor! I was furious. In August 1968 my bag of midget gems had been spilt all over the place as Newcastle yobs had ran amok terrorising children, grandads and shopkeepers on the road up to Roker Park for the derby.
I had nursed my wrath from that day, and now this!
An ugly scene was developing as it was quite apparent there was hundreds of Newcastle fans ringing the pub and baying for blood. Some of them tried to get into the backroom through the horseshoe bar, but the narrow bottleneck meant we were able to hold them off. It reminded me of a scene from the film Zulu, the absurdity of the thought made me smile, which prompted one particularly rough-looking Newcastle chap to shout at me, asking what I was laughing at? My reply was out before I had really thought it through, but Hey Ho what’s changed in the 44 years since then, “you ya comedian” was my reply!
This did not help calm the situation, which was threatening to run amok as the bar staff disappeared and left us to our fate! Thankfully the police arrived and a bit of order was restored. The Newcastle fans were evicted from the bar and we were herded through, for what I thought would be an escort up to the ground. In a groundbreaking new anti-hooliganism tactic the police decided to bring us to the door in ones and twos, show us to the gathered crowd that had ringed the pub and set us on our way. It reminded me of the Christians being paraded at the Colosseum before slaughter. I was the last one out and made it up to the ground but cannot afford the police any credit for that.
Maybe if I had been aware that some of their colleagues were fully engaged in what the local press reported as “the battle of Bath Lane”, I might have been a tad more empathetic for the job the police were attempting to do! In all, there were 50 arrests that day and a catalogue of destruction and injuries.
Thank goodness we live in different times and going to football is not as consistently risky in this regard as it used to be back then.
Anyhow on to the game and what a game it was.
Newcastle had been expected to mount a promotion challenge that season and were being managed by the experienced Bill McGarry. They had bought some cultured players including the likes of John Blackley, Mick Martin, John Connelly and Peter “werewolf” Withe.
They also had some experienced players in John Bird, Irving Nattrass and John Brownlie. Terry Hibbit had returned from Birmingham for a second spell.
Despite his Newcastle allegiance I always liked the little Toony schemer who had started off at Leeds and played in the second leg of their victorious Inter-Cities fairs cup final in 1968 as well as their First division championship-winning team of 1968/69.
It was not going particularly well for Newcastle and the natives were getting restless. McGarry was rumoured to be set for the sack. A derby against a resurgent Sunderland was perhaps the last thing he needed!
Billy Elliott had taken over as caretaker manager just prior to Christmas 1978, Elliott was Sunderland through and through.
He joined Sunderland as a player from Burnley in 1953. He was an England international and gave sterling service playing at left wing, left half and at left back for his beloved red and whites between 1953 and 1959 amassing a total of 212 appearances and 26 goals.
Upon retiring from playing, he went on to coach the Libyan national team and coached in Belgium before returning to Sunderland in 1968 as a coach. He was part of Bob Stokoe’s backroom team throughout the 1973 cup-winning campaign and is credited with pushing Dave Watson to centre half, despite the fact he had been bought as a centre forward.
He had held the post of caretaker manager prior to Bob Stokoe’s appointment in 1972 and had returned to that role from his coaching role in Norway when first Adamson and then Merrington had left for Leeds.
From taking over in December, he had overseen an improvement in performances and was undefeated, but there was a lot of draws, which meant we were on the fringes of the promotion race in 5th position as we came into the derby.
The Sunderland fans were packed into an uncovered Leazes End that had been cut down to half its previous size, as Newcastle were in the middle of ground redevelopment. But with the Gallowgate an open terrace at the other end of the ground, the pitch was somewhat open to the elements and in those days could cut up pretty badly. The pitch also had quite a “hillock” that ran through the middle of it, this meant if you were at ground level at one end, you could only see from the knees up of your average keeper at the other end. It was a cabbage patch!
There was a raucous atmosphere as the teams lined up for kick-off. It looked like we were playing a 4-4-2 formation, which Billy Elliott seemed to prefer for away games, with Rowell playing behind the front two.
One of my favourite Sunderland players ever is Kevin Arnott. It's maybe not the most widely known fact that when he came into the side in January 1977 he had come through a period where he had been playing on a month-to-month contract, had struggled for his place in the reserves at times and was rumoured to have been contemplating giving up the game! Thank our lucky stars he did not give up and we got to see this mercurial midfielder stroke the ball wherever he chose at times in his 146-game career with us!
With the Gateshead-born schemer quickly into his stride, we were on the attack from the start. Apart from Arnott, local lads Joe Bolton, Mickey Henderson, Shaun Elliott and Wilf Rostron all looked up for the fight, Gordon Chisholm, although a Scot, had come through our youth ranks and was one of the group of young players in the team that would play such an effective role on the day.
On six minutes, a free kick by Clarke was headed on first by Chisholm and then Rostron, who cleverly looped his header between Nattrass and Bird. Ghosting into that space was Gary Rowell, who just got his left foot to the ball and steered it past Hardwick into the corner of the goal. What a start and how we roared in the Leazes End!
Newcastle came back at us and Barry Siddall made two good saves from the dangerous Peter Withe. Bird was booked for a nasty trip on Gary Rowell’s whose movement behind and coming in-between our front two was causing the Newcastle defence some problems.
On 24 minutes Rostron won the ball in midfield and fed Arnott. In that almost balletic manner that characterised his passing, he placed a perfect pass over the Newcastle defence and right in the trajectory of Rowell’s timed run. As Hardwick motioned to come out and close the angle the Seaham Mag-Slayer caught him off guard by firing a shot from the edge of the box, across his left hand side into the same corner as he had planted his first goal. If we roared the first goal, this second goal sent the Leazes End into a decibel frenzy.
Shortly after this Rowell’s easiest opportunity of the game arrived. Arnott skipped a lovely pass tantalisingly off the top of Blackley’s head, to land once again invitingly as Rowell once more found the gap. He should have scored, (and usually did score these type of chances) but placed his shot just too close to Hardwick who gathered the ball.
Newcastle tried to come back into the game and we soaked up a bit of pressure for a while, but with Bolton, Clarke and Elliott right on their game, Siddall hardly touched the ball. Arnott was booked for a foul on Connolly and Brownlie for a particularly rough hack at Lee, who was then booked for retaliation.
At half-time we went in two-nil up and well worth the lead. The usually vocal Gallowgate had been silenced and it was the Leazes End that was roaring our players in for their slice of orange and sweet tea!
Newcastle came out for the second half looking like they had been roasted by Bill McGarry. Mitchell replaced Blackley whom the game had passed by in the first half. They certainly got their crowd going for probably the first time in the match as they went on the attack. On 50 minutes Henderson fouled Connolly out on the flank. Nigel Walker placed an accurate cross to the far post where Connolly unmarked headed in.
The game became much more of a contest after this as it swung from one end of the pitch to the other. I was just starting to feel a bit nervous for the first time in the match when Sunderland born Wilf Rostron stepped up. On 60 minutes he won the ball in midfield and skipped between two Newcastle players, advancing at pace he slid a pass to Mickey Henderson up from full-back and charging into the box. In what seemed to me like slow motion, Mitchell upended the onrushing full back for as blatant a penalty as you will see.
Gary Rowell was our nominated penalty taker. The 21-year-old stepped up and sent the keeper the wrong way to put us 3-1 up and him on a hattrick. I have to say he looked as cool as the breeze as he stroked that ball into the back of the net. I am sure I read somewhere that he himself has said he was anything but!
I don’t know why I was so worried at the time, Rowell was as good a penalty taker as I have seen in our colours. Tony Towers and John MacPhail might have rivalled him if they had taken as many as he. But of the 26 penalties he took, he scored 25 between 1977 and 1984.
Ah man I can tell you we were in seventh heaven in the Leazes End as the Newcastle fans left in their droves. What a performance from one of our own!
Newcastle then threw caution to the wind and launched some attacks but the game as a contest seemed done, as we passed the ball nonchalantly and looked for the counter-attack. One of these counter attacks saw a cracking sequence of play, as the ball was pinged from defence through the United press, and a posse of Sunderland players on the break. Rowell drew Hardwick to him outside the box and slipped the ball to Bob Lee, who thrashed it into the empty net. It was arguably the best goal of the game. It was disallowed by the referee who awarded a foul to Sunderland for Hardwick’s tackle on Rowell. In today’s game that goal would have stood, and it was a cracker.
Sunderland and Rowell were not finished yet though. On 71 minutes, Bob Lee played a ball into space on the flank for Rowell to run onto. With his back to goal initially, he seemed to dummy his defender, turning and crossing an exquisite far post ball, over the flailing Hardwick to the galloping Punk Rocker that was Wayne Entwistle. He headed the ball almost on the goal line to make the score 4-1 and send the Sunderland contingent delirious. That cross might have drifted in to give Rowell his fourth goal, but like every good striker Entwistle did the right thing in nodding it over the line.
There were not that many Newcastle fans left in the ground after this and there were great scenes on the final whistle as we were able to salute our team in a fantastic victory.
The only slight blemish on an otherwise perfect performance was the substitution of Arnott for Docherty. The schemer had been booked in the first half, and I did think he was being targeted a tad by the Newcastle midfield. He was not happy to come off and showed it, hopefully this would not be held against him.
Bill McGarry was very magnanimous after the game for a man whose job was firmly in the balance. He declared the best team had won and he saw no reason why Sunderland could not go on and mount a serious promotion challenge. He also said of the hattrick hero:
Rowell is a gift. He’s a natural - you never see him, he just scores goals.
The defeat left Newcastle in 15th position and with their season virtually over. Remarkably the Newcastle board stuck with McGarry for another season which also ended in mid-table disappointment. With crowds dwindling, he was sacked just weeks into the 80/81 season and replaced by Arthur Cox.
Billy Elliott declared himself “happy with four goals, although we might have had six”.
Ivor Broadis writing in the Sunday Sun said of Rowell, “at times he looked to have more space than an astronaut”.
The hattrick put Rowell on 20 goals for the season. He would only score one more in four games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury, who knows what might have been had he been available through to the end of that season.
We did mount an exciting assault on the promotion places, winning 11 of our last 16 games, and finished agonisingly two points behind champions Crystal Palace on 55 points in fourth position.
But all that meant nothing to us as we headed away from St James into the cold February night and I can happily tell you I had a great night out in Morpeth after the game, which seemed remarkably bereft of Toonies!
February 24th 1979
Newcastle 1 – 4 Sunderland
Goals: Rowell 6, 24, 60, Entwistle 71. (Connolly 50 minutes).
Newcastle: Hardwick, Brownlie, Nattrass, Martin, Bird, Blackley (Mitchell), Walker, Hibbit, Connolly, Shoulder, Withe.
Sunderland: Siddall, Henderson, Bolton, Elliott, Clarke, Arnott, Rostron, Chisholm, Rowell, Lee, Entwistle.