Relegation from Division 1 in 1984/85 season cost Len Ashurst his job as manager, despite a losing Wembley appearance in the League Cup final. Chairman Tom Cowie had appointed Lawrie McMenemy in the manager’s post for the start of the 1985/86 campaign, which initially was a very popular appointment with the Roker fans.
McMenemy had secured some assurances from the board for transfer funds, and following a tried and trusted formula he promptly secured the services of experienced players Frank Gray, George Burley, Alan Kennedy, Eric Gates, Dave Swindlehurst and Liverpool goalkeeper Bob Bolder.
McMenemy would add these “older heads” to some burgeoning young talent already at the club in the shape of Barry Venison, Nick Pickering, Gordon Armstrong, Paul Lemon, John Cornforth and speedy winger Paul Atkinson. There was also high hopes for a young forward who had been scoring lots of goals for the Youth team and reserves, Dale White.
It was not as if there were not already some experience and handy performers already at the club for McMenemy to factor into his thinking, Shaun Elliott, Gary Bennett, Gordon Chisholm, Clive Walker and Ruben Agboola were just some of the existing squad from the previous campaign that would make up a squad that looked more than capable of a successful season. Hopes were high!
These hopes were quickly dashed after a disastrous start that saw five defeats and two draws in the first seven games. It was not just the results but the performances that were nothing short of alarming. McMenemy appeared befuddled in his attempts to turn this around and by Easter, we were mired in a relegation dogfight with seven other teams, including Middlesborough, Carlisle, and this day’s opponents Fulham.
In the background (and certainly not helping the cause) was a damaging and very public boardroom battle between motor magnate and Chairman Tom Cowie and Financial director and Property developer Barry Batey. Just prior to this game the local media was awash with the latest in this battle, with Cowie banning all directors from travelling on the team bus and Batey ignoring the edict and boarding the bus as a regular traveller to away and home games. At times this resembled a school playground spat!
It had been a disappointing hard slog for Roker fans and attendances had suffered. However, almost 36,000 had turned up for an FA cup tie to witness a fighting draw and credible performance against the previous seasons cup winners Manchester United. Even this result failed to ignite the season as we lost the replay 3-0 and then endured a nine-game run without a win that saw us 19th in the table coming into this game. We had not tasted victory since the exciting 4-2 home victory against Leeds in January and I turned up more in hope than a firm belief that we could turn our form and season around.
One thing that did please me was that Dale White was on the subs bench, I had seen this lad play for the reserves and Youth team and really felt he had goals in him. He had made his debut the week before in a 1-0 defeat at Bramall Lane but would only make one other appearance from the bench, before being loaned out to Peterborough and eventually disappearing from league football.
The game itself for the best part of an hour was an absolute cracker for the sparse Roker crowd of 12,000. Within two minutes from kick-off Shaun Elliott prodded home the opener as Sunderland started brightly.
The Lads were moving the ball sharply and accurately, with Mark Proctor back in the central midfield berth after a three-game absence. The midfielder could be an irresistible force on his day and he scored on 22 minutes after dummying to pass in central midfield and then crashing through two challenges and arrowing the ball past Payton in the Fulham goal. It was no more than our performance deserved, with youngsters Venison and Armstrong lively and Frank Gray a very positive contributor.
On 37 minutes two of our less noticeable performers sprang to life. Alan Kennedy charged down his wing and bulleted a peach of a cross into the box, Ian Wallace met the ball deftly and it hit the back of the net before the keeper moved. What a first half, not only 3-0 up but playing with pace, style and real intent, there was some incredibly happy Roker fans at the break.
The second half resumed in a similar vein, whilst Fulham had offered very little, we were offering them little chance to do so, adopting an attack is the best form of defence ethos at every opportunity. On 50 minutes Proctor capped his man of the match performance with a second goal of some quality with a cracking volley that did its best to break the net!
Dale White replaced Wallace and more goals looked likely, could the youngster cash in and get his first goal in league football?
The answer to that question was... no.
On the hour and right out of the blue Fulham scored through Coney. In keeping with our season, this triggered something of a collapse as we looked like it was us that was 4-0 down. Burvill scored a second for Fulham on 72 minutes and it raised our anxiety levels as we struggled to string a pass.
It really was a perplexing performance as we hung on to the finish.
Best for Sunderland on the day were Proctor and Gray, with youngsters Venison and Armstrong putting in a good shift.
Three home wins in the final six games would see us preserve our 2nd division status for one more season, with Lawrie McMenemy infamously waving a white hanky at the conclusion of the last game at Roker. Whatever his intention it was not well received by the Roker crowd - he needed to do much better in 1986/87!
05/04/1986 - 2nd Division - Roker Park - Attendance 11,338.
Score Sunderland 4 - 2 Fulham
Sunderland: Elliott 2 - Proctor 22 - Wallace 37 - Proctor 50.
Fulham: Coney 60 - Burvill 72.
Sunderland: Dibble, Venison, Kennedy, Hetzke, Elliott, Proctor, Armstrong, Gray, Ford, Gayle, Wallace (White).
Fulham: Payton, Cottington, Carr, Dreyer, Marshall, Gore (Donnellan), Burvill, Achampong, Coney, Pike, Barnett.