The midweek game against Portsmouth was scheduled for an afternoon kick off due to the floodlight ban caused by the continuing miner’s strike and picketing of power stations, which had led to country-wide blackouts.
Reflecting the kick-off time, the lowest crowd of the season turned up to see a thrilling if somewhat flawed performance from Sunderland that left them in third place in the table, four points behind leaders Norwich and Millwall.
The crowd was bolstered by a number of schoolkids who had decided an afternoon watching their heroes was better than algebra! I was one of them, and was glad to have been there to see not only Lathan’s hattrick but incredibly good performances from Ian Porterfield and Dave Watson.
Nine of the twelve players listed for this game would appear the following season in the fantastic run to Wembley and FA Cup glory.
Nineteen year old Lathan was starting only his second league game of this season having found his opportunities up front limited by the form and fitness of Dave Watson, Billy Hughes and Dennis Tueart, as well as often vying with his youth team strike partner Paddy Lowery for a place on the bench.
John Lathan had been a prolific scorer for the youth team and scored six goals for the cup winning youth team of 1968/69. I had seen him play a couple of times in that cup run and thought he had the game to make a real impression.
However, since his goalscoring first team debut in November 1969 against Southampton he had struggled to cement a starting eleven place.
That said he was still young enough to make an impact - and the Sunderland-born forward took an opportunity in this game to do just that.
Derek Forster was in goal for the injured Montgomery and looked a tad nervous prior to kickoff. In a first half that saw Portsmouth hit the woodwork twice, (to add to keeper Forster’s jitters), Sunderland dominated possession with Porterfield in imperious fettle.
On 24 minutes Dave Watson (who had a hand in all of Lathan’s goals) rose powerfully and headed a Kerr corner goal bound. Full back Smith got a boot to the ball, but the rebound fell to Lathan, and from twelve yards out he blasted a shot into the back of the goal. It was one nil at half-time but we continued to dominate and Lathan along with Watson and Porterfield were very lively.
The second goal came just three minutes into the second half. Once again Watson played a crucial part, deftly drawing markers to him before chipping a ball to Lathan who raced on to score past the keeper. I had a great view of this one and it did look like the youngster had a slice of luck, mishitting the ball into the goal, but what a ball from big Dave, who could play on the deck as well as in the air!
The third Lathan goal came on 60 minutes and saw a trademark Tueart run and cross, headed deftly down by Watson to Lathan, perfectly positioned to smash the ball home.
Lathan’s third goal summed up our dominance in this game and he was warmly congratulated by his teammates, three of whom played with him in the 68/69 youth team.
That should have signalled the end of the game as a contest, but in what many watchers might recognise as a frustrating pattern at the time with this team, we proceeded to fall asleep at the wheel!
First of all Forster fouled Reynolds clumsily to give away a penalty on 72 minutes, which was despatched with ease by Piper for Pompey. Then, with Forster looking increasingly nervous, and all but Porterfield in apparent slumber, Wilson smashed a cracking shot on 87 minutes.
There was still time for Porterfield to strike a post with an elegant left foot drive that his performance probably deserved before the referee called time up.
It was a frustrating last twenty minutes that sort of summed up Sunderland’s season. We finished the season fifth, six points behind Birmingham in second place. Looking back, there were indications a team was beginning to take shape, but no one could have envisaged what season 1972/73 would bring.
For John Lathan, this was a good day. He had taken his goals well and provided further evidence of his ability to be in the right place at the right time which some of us had witnessed at youth level.
He would though continue to struggle to cement his place in the forward line, whilst never being too far away from the first team squad.
Bob Stokoe’s arrival as manager in November of 1972/73 season did not change the situation for Lathan, and despite making appearances in the early rounds of the cup run he found games harder to come by.
He did have one very notable cameo in October 1973 in a league cup tie against Derby County at the Baseball ground. With Sunderland 2-0 down against the first division team, Lathan scored twice in arguably his best performance for Sunderland to bring the tie to a replay that would culminate in a fantastic third replay under the lights at Roker Park and a Vic Halom hattrick.
Lathan was used in the deal that bought Dennis Longhorn to Sunderland in a player-plus-cash transaction. He had been reluctant to leave Sunderland but is held in high esteem at Mansfield, where he helped them to promotion as Division 4 champions in 1975.
He scored a credible 18 goals in 48 appearances (14 of which were as a substitute) and went on to have a good career in the lower divisions at Mansfield where he had two spells, Portsmouth and Carlisle. He was noted as a creator as well as scorer of goals and was not a traditional centre forward, perhaps better described as an inside forward. He emigrated to Australia having studied sports injuries and coached in South Africa before retiring.
Wednesday 1st March 1972 - League Division 2
Roker Park: Attendance 8,273
Sunderland 3 (Lathan 24, 48, 60)
Portsmouth 2 (Piper/pen 72, Wilson 87)
Sunderland: Forster, Coleman, Malone, Pitt, Harvey, McGiven, Kerr, Porterfield, Tueart, Lathan, Watson. (Sub Chambers).
Portsmouth: Milkins, Smith, Collins, Wilson, Hand, Blant, Piper, Reynolds, Hiron, Ley, Storrie.