The Good Friday game against Carlisle at Roker Park would be followed by another home game the next day against Bristol City, then a return game against Carlisle at Brunton Park the following Tuesday.
Over 34,000 people turned up for the first of the Easter fixtures, hoping for a late promotion push.
Realistically, with Middlesbrough running away with the 2nd Division title, we were aiming for second place. Carlisle themselves were right in the mix and had been a real surprise package that season.
They had beaten us in the FA Cup at Roker in January and as I climbed the Fulwell steps, I thought they should hold no surprises for us after the cup defeat.
Luton, Orient, Blackpool, Nottingham Forest, and West Brom were also in the frame alongside Sunderland, and it was tight.
Our form that season had been more than a tad frustrating as we seemed unable to put a run of victories together. Coming into this game, we were on a four-game undefeated run, and I was convinced we had a good finish to the season in us!
Carlisle had played some attractive football up to this juncture of the season, and in Clarke and Laidlaw, they had a front two who had troubled every team they had faced.
In midfield, Carlisle had a little dynamo in Ray Train, who would join us in season 1975/76 and help us to promotion. Also in midfield was England cricketer Chris Balderstone, a classy operator who scored his share of goals and gelled well with Train.
This game was not going to be easy!
I had anticipated a hard-fought close contest.
What we got was a first half of total dominance from Sunderland. With Towers, Porterfield, and Longhorn running midfield, Kerr, Halom, and Hughes were fed a diet of excellent passes and opportunities in a rampant first half display that had the crowd purring at times.
Carlisle’s stubborn defending, with Newcastle-born Bill Green at centre-half a big obstacle to get around, saw them hold out till half-time, assisted by a couple of great saves by Alan Ross from Hughes and Halom. Dave Watson hit a post with a thunderous header, Bobby Kerr blazed a great chance over the bar after some slick approach play, and Belfitt fired a header just past the post. Surely it was a case of when not if as we headed into the second half.
On the resumption of the game, a goal did come very quickly, sadly not for the home team. In what I reckon was only the second incursion into our box, Laidlaw nicked the ball off Watson after a bad square ball from Belfitt and beat Montgomery with a well-aimed shot. Carlisle then proceeded to boss the game through Train and Balderstone as it looked for a short while like it was going to be one of those games.
Steadily we forced our way back into the game with our midfield three reasserting control. On 55 minutes, a corner by Porterfield was headed clear but fell to Bolton lurking on the edge of the box.
His mishit shot fell to Halom, who dispatched his 19th goal of the season in all competitions with no fuss. With the crowd baying the Lads on, we witnessed some great football in that second half. Had Towers and Porterfield been given more time on the pitch together, I have always believed we would have had a midfield to envy, injuries and Porterfield’s car crash make this a case of what might have been!
On the 69th minute, Longhorn passed the ball to Towers on the right wing. He crossed with precision and a deft touch for Hughes to hammer home a great goal.
There was no more scoring, but plenty of good football to admire in Sunderland’s play. The crowd went home happy, and I could not wait for the game against mid-table Bristol City the next day.
In keeping with our form that season, I saw us lose 2-1 to Bristol at Roker the next day and then 1-0 to Carlisle at Brunton Park the following Tuesday.
Despite winning our final three games of the season, the damage was done; we finished sixth on forty-seven points, three points behind Luton in second place. Carlisle finished third on forty-nine points.
We played some great football that season at times, but we kept dropping points and couldn’t keep a winning run going.
Promotion was frustratingly close but not close enough!
Football League Division 2 - 12th April 1974
Roker Park - Attendance - 34,179
Sunderland 2 – 1 Carlisle
Scorers – Laidlaw 46 minutes, Halom 55 minutes, Hughes 69 minutes.
Sunderland; Montgomery, Malone, Bolton, Belfitt, Watson, Longhorn, Towers, Porterfield, Hughes, Kerr, Halom. Sub Ashurst.
Carlisle; Ross, Carr, Winstanley, O’Neill, Green, Balderstone, Train, Martin, Owen, Clarke, Laidlaw.