1976-77 was a tumultuous season, even by Sunderland’s standards.
They seemed like certainties for the drop following the departure of legendary manager Bob Stokoe early in the campaign, and whilst relegation proved to be unavoidable in the end, that team still garnered plenty of support.
Demotion was confirmed following the final game but it was in hugely acrimonious circumstances.
Events elsewhere conspired to send Sunderland down, but with replacement manager Jimmy Adamson giving exciting youth products like Kevin Arnott and Shaun Elliott opportunities in the new year the club had dragged themselves from the abyss to at least give themselves a chance of survival – and they came within a whisker of pulling it off too.
The Lads had been rock bottom of Division One and were struggling for goals until a sparkling run of form from late February onwards ushered in a new sense of optimism, and new look Sunderland hit their peak on this day with a wonderful performance against West Ham United.
With the TV cameras pitching up at Roker Park the events were saved for prosperity too, and so the match continues to be looked back on with huge fondness by new and long-term fans alike.
Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme could barely believe what he was seeing at points as the hosts tore into fellow relegation candidates West Ham.
The football on display was warmly received by the crowd as well – attendances picked up as quickly as the results and within ten minutes a gate of over 35,000 was heralding a 2-0 lead following tidy finishes from Mel Holden and Gary Rowell.
Adamson’s men cut loose from that point; Holden capitalised on a half cleared corner to get his second of the afternoon, and another defensive slip then led to Bobby Kerr smashing home his first of the season.
Shell-shocked United were struggling to compose themselves, and when Rowell blasted in from a tight angle following a quickly taken thrown it was starting to look like they were playing one of the front runners for the title, never mind a side that had been third bottom at kick off.
Rowell was establishing himself in the first team and alongside homegrown talent such as Arnott and Elliott there was a new sense of energy that was difficult to contain.
Sunderland rounded off the spree with the simplest of moves five minutes from time. Mick Docherty pounced on the ball in the right back area and played a first-time pass down through the centre of the pitch for Bob Lee, who managed to run onto it and nonchalantly flick a shot past the onrushing Mervyn Day.
The keeper had been left badly exposed by his defence on several occasions, but with confidence flowing right through the team the Rokerites showed no mercy and made the most of their chances; the 6-0 scoreline following on nicely from the 6-1 win over West Bromwich Albion that had occurred in the previous competitive outing and making it four wins out of four in the league.
Colin Waldron, a recent arrival from Manchester United, made his debut at centre back against West Ham and contributed to the clean sheet with Sunderland a level above at both ends.
Having seemingly been dead and buried a few weeks earlier the side had now recorded what would prove to be their largest margin of victory of the decade – an unusual achievement given the way things panned out.
After giving themselves too much to do beforehand the bid to stay up would ultimately end in failure, but Sunderland could take pride in putting up a fight and making this one a day to remember.
Saturday 5 March 1977
Football League Division One
Sunderland 6 (Holden 3, 30, Rowell 9, 64, Kerr 53, Lee 85)
West Ham United 0
Sunderland: Siddall; Docherty, Waldron, Ashurst, Bolton; Kerr, Arnott, Elliott (Brown 78), Rowell; Holden, Lee.
Roker Park, attendance 35,357