Outside-right Billy Bingham was a popular figure during his time as a player during the 1950s boom period, and his return to Roker Park on this day in 1978 whilst manager of visitors Mansfield Town saw him being warmly greeted by the home faithful once more.
The same could not be said however of his counterpart Jimmy Adamson, whose own relationship with the supporters was starting to wane.
The Sunderland boss had come agonisingly close to surviving relegation at the end of 1976-77, and with a raft of highly rated youngsters at his disposal the Northumbrian was tipped to spearhead a promotion push the following season but alas, things did not quite pan out as hoped.
An encouraging victory over Burnley in front of over 31,000 in the first home game of the campaign had raised expectations further yet form after that had been erratic at best, and with the side now marooned seemingly in midtable it was only the hardcore that were still turning up.
Winless in five and without a goal even in their last three outings, the Lads attracted an attendance of barely 14,000 for their Stag Do – the lowest since the 1974 visit of Portsmouth when it was the tail end of a miners strike and the Three-Day Week.
The economic situation wasn’t much better by this stage either however, and with the Winter of Discontent just around the corner a lack of disposable cash was proving to be another major factor in the dwindling crowds.
Sunderland did at least try to provide some value for money against Mansfield, and despite recent performances they started very brightly.
Ian Wood made a timely goal line clearance to deny Keith Armstrong, and with the hosts pushing for an early opener Rod Arnold was forced into making two smart saves, the first coming from Armstrong again and the second seeing him claw a Mick Henderson shot just past the post.
It proved to be a temporary reprieve, as from the resulting corner Bob Lee outjumped both his marker and the goalkeeper to power home a magnificent header.
It brought a deserved lead and ended up being the difference between the teams, with the Rokerites’ ability to make their pressure pay whilst on top proving vital; it was Bingham’s team that created the better openings thereafter, but they too had been struggling for goals and it soon showed.
Barry Siddall was tidy when he had to be, but poor finishing meant it was only routine duties he was being asked to carry out if that – most of Mansfield’s efforts were off target anyway. The keeper did do well to collect one deceiving cross from Dennis Martin from just under the bar, yet his afternoon got quieter the longer it went on with Jackie Ashurst making one particularly sharp interception to prevent another chance.
Ashurst was not the only youth product to make an impact during the match; Tim Gilbert had some eye catching moments in an unfamiliar striking role whilst Armstrong was a regular threat. Their work boded well for the coming weeks and although another short blip came on the back of this win, results then picked up dramatically and finished with five victories out of the final six fixtures.
Sunderland eventually rose to sixth courtesy of that strong run in, but their final position was slightly misleading; things had not ignited under Adamson in the way many previously envisaged, and by April the numbers coming in had slipped even further.
The joint issues of the football and the finances both played a part as consecutive sub 12,000 gates were posted at the start of the month, showing just how few fans were now in a position where they wanted and could also afford to attend.
Saturday 18 March 1978
Football League Division Two
Sunderland 1 (Lee 15)
Mansfield Town 0
Sunderland: Siddall; Henderson, Clarke, Ashurst, Bolton; Armstrong, Kerr, Docherty, Rowell; Lee, Gilbert (Elliott 76).
Roker Park, attendance 14,033