This game against Bolton Wanderers at Roker Park would draw the last ever 50,000 plus crowd into the grand old stadium.
With Bolton still in the promotion mix, there was a lot to play for. A brace of near misses in the preceding two seasons were enough to jangle the nerves of a massive Roker crowd prior to the game.
Irrespective of our home form that season which saw us arrive at this juncture undefeated at Roker, I can still recall that heady mix of excitement and anxiety as I took my place in the Fulwell End. I was not alone, despite the beautiful sunshine you could taste in equal doses the apprehension and desire emanating around Roker Park long before the teams took the field.
I had travelled to Hull two days previously along with a huge Sunderland following and witnessed a Champions elect display in the 4-1 victory, which included Gary Rowell’s first goal at senior level for the club. There was a lot to feel confident and happy about.
Worryingly though for the third time that season Bob Stokoe had been missing from the dugout at Hull, with “illness” (migraine) and in the local media on the day of the Bolton game he had felt obliged to issue a statement saying he would not be retiring and he was “as fit as any 45-year-old”.
Sunderland chairperson Keith Collings had fed the frenzy by being quoted in the press as saying that he and the board wanted Stokoe at the club next season, but his health would have to come first! Another slice of tension anyone?!
Bolton were a more than handy outfit with two future Sunderland managers on their team sheet (Reid and Allardyce), as well as Barry Siddall in goal who would sign for us the following season.
Jeff Clarke’s ongoing injury meant that Jackie Ashurst continued alongside Bobby Moncur in the heart of our defence. Tony Towers returned to the midfield in place of young Gary Rowell who had not only scored whilst deputising for Towers at Hull but produced a performance of great maturity and promise. Skipper Towers had been immense throughout the season and if fit, would have to play.
It was reassuring to see Stokoe take his place in the dug-out just prior to kick-off, he was given a very warm reception by the huge crowd.
It was a cagey opening to the game, which reflected the anxiety in the stadium, a cracking tackle by Bolton and a nice passage of play by Train and Towers got the crowd going and what ensued was more like what we had witnessed at Hull two days previously.
Ray Train had been a clever acquisition midway through the season, often described as a midfield workhorse, he was far more than that. He possessed a nice touch and lovely short ball game that complimented Towers and Kerr in our midfield that season. He was also in perpetual motion and quick across the ground too.
With our midfield dominating, Holden and Robson were plaguing the life of the Bolton defence, as both Malone and Bolton joined in the mayhem down their flanks. Roker Park was pulsing with expectation as it seemed only a matter of when, not if we would score.
In a frantic seven minutes the result was decided. On thirty-one minutes midfielder Roy Greaves fouled Ray Train in the box just as he was about to shoot, Bobby Kerr lashed the ball into the Bolton net to send the crowd into a joyous frenzy which was quickly stifled as the referee insisted on a penalty!
The speed at which joy turns to anxiety in these situations has been amplified and replayed many times over with the introduction of VAR into the modern game, back then we were not as practised and I could hardly breath, as the coolest head on the pitch Tony Towers (50,000 of us just did not realise this at the time) sent Siddall the wrong way to put us deservedly into the lead.
The anxiety was not just being experienced in the crowd, I noticed just as Towers started his run-up that Bob Stokoe could not watch and was facing toward the main stand as the ball hit the back of the net!
The goal not only spurred the team on, but released some of the apprehension in the crowd and the Roker Roar was echoing from all four stands as the whole stadium appeared to be shaking in tune to the chanting and noise.
The pitch was cleared of its happy invaders and the game got underway again.
Bolton were on the rack and Willie Morgan, who had little change out of Joe Bolton all afternoon, was booked for a bad foul on the youngster. The resultant free kick found its way nicely through a couple of sharp passes to Kerr out on the right wing. He arrowed a cross into “the corridor of uncertainty” in the Bolton box. Pop Robson had typically ghosted in unmarked met the cross with his head and placed it well beyond Siddall.
Cue delirious mayhem all over Roker Park. It was a cracking goal and no more than our dominance at this point deserved.
I did not want the half to finish such was our dominance, Peter Reid obviously did as he was booked for dissent and seemed on the cusp of losing it!
Bolton did come back into the game a bit upon the resumption of the second half. Byram on as a substitute, had a great chance to reduce the deficit when sent through on goal from a great pass by Reid. Montgomery though to the rescue as he managed to get a touch and deflect the ball to safety. In the process he sustained an injury that required a few minutes of treatment (and would side-line him for the last two games of the season).
Despite a bit of Bolton pressure, Jackie Ashurst and Bobby Moncur handled the much-heralded Bolton front two of Whatmore and Jones very well. Joe Bolton and Dick Malone held sway over the experienced Willie Morgan and Peter Thompson and both full backs contributed to attack at times.
Pop Robson might have scored a second after a lovely passage of play presented him with the kind of chance he usually gobbled up and Mel Holden hit the inside of the post with a deft header, it would have been a goal his performance deserved.
Just as we were cruising toward the final stages and confirmation of promotion, Sam Allardyce headed a Morgan free kick past Monty on seventy-eight minutes. I can tell you (if you were not there) it was an anxious last ten minutes for the crowd, but the team on the pitch handled the pressure without too much difficulty. Billy Hughes came on for Greenwood and added to our threat on the break.
The final whistle triggered another pitch invasion of the happy kind and the old ground roared its approval of our confirmed promotion. Relief as well as pride was my over-riding emotion as I held my scarf aloft and joined all four stands in as good a display of our colours as I can remember at Roker.
The team treat us to a lap of honour, which the injured Jeff Clarke eventually joined in with. Clarke had been fantastic right up to his injury and deserved his moment in the sun alongside the rest of the squad.
Stokoe was quick to praise the crowd when interviewed after the game, dedicating the result to the fans, and saying, “I am delighted now, not for me but for those supporters of ours.” He also quickly turned attention to the remaining two games and his goal of winning the championship.
The next day I joined a huge following who made the relatively short trip to Blackpool where we experienced our first defeat in ten games, to put our championship winner celebration on hold. We would not be denied though as we put Portsmouth to the sword at Roker the following Saturday in front of another bumper 40,000 plus crowd.
Monday 19th April, 1976
Football League Division Two
Sunderland 2–1 Bolton Wanderers
[Towers (pen) 31’, Robson 37’ - Allardyce 78’]
Sunderland: Montgomery, Bolton, Malone, Ashurst, Moncur, Train, Towers, Kerr, Greenwood (Hughes), Holden, Robson.
Bolton Wanderers: Siddall, Walsh, Nicholson, Greaves, Jones P, Allardyce, Morgan, Reid, Jones G (Byram), Whatmore, Thompson.