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On This Day (20 May 1978): Rookie Sunderland goalkeeper impresses as forgotten tour commences

Sunderland fell to defeat in their opening match 45 years ago, but it was a good tour – from what we can tell!

Watson (back row, third from the right) and Merrington (furthest right) line up ahead of 1978-79

Details of Sunderland’s 1978 tour to Kenya are somewhat thin on the ground. It would appear as if full records were not kept, and reports back home in the press lacked a lot of the usual information – underlining perhaps the apparent indifference to the trip shown by Jimmy Adamson.

The manager had suggested in his programme notes for a Roker fixture against Notts County a few weeks earlier that he did not approve of players spending the close season taking part in the North American Soccer League as it could led to them feeling jaded. He presumably had similar reservations about heading thousands of miles in the other direction too, and in the end didn’t even make the journey himself.

Electing to stay in the UK to try and tie up a deal for Swansea City forward Alan Curtis, Adamson instead put his assistant Dave Merrington in charge of the party. Also known to be missing out were Barry Siddall, whose father had recently fallen ill, and Wayne Entwistle, who needed to focus not only on his recovery following a shoulder problem but was also sorting his upcoming wedding and subsequent house move into a new property in Washington. Representing the club alongside Merrington meanwhile would be vice-chairman John Ditchburn, who shortly before the flight had taken part in a “trail run” 10 mile sponsored walk for the Variety Club.

Organised by fellow board member Frank Cronin, known to many for his successful development of the Edward Thompson firm, the main event was due to take place whilst his counterpart was still abroad. It did mean though that Adamson would now be able to join in alongside former Sunderland defender Bob Moncur and several other prominent local figures, but Merrington had other things on his mind.

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With Siddall out, former Chelsea stopper Kenneth Dodds recently released and Dick Taylor’s loan from Huddersfield Town now up, youngster Ian Watson was drafted in and despite not having made his senior debut by this point he took his opportunity with glee. One of the few bits of information to emerge from tour was that during their travels he caught the eye of Merrington, who upon returning home confirmed the North Shields native would now be expected to push for a first team spot.

The teenager started on this day against Kenya Breweries, the East Africa Breweries sponsored side who are now known as Tusker. One of the most successful clubs in the country, they were reigning league champions at the time and despite being hemmed in apparently for large periods they came out 2-0 winners; altitude proving to be an issue for the Lads who had only just set off 48 hours before the fixture and had not had chance to acclimate. Despite this, Sunderland seemed to get to grips with the conditions in Nairobi quickly as just another day on they won 3-2 against Gor Mahia.

After leaving the capital for Mombasa two more victories followed against Ramogi (who later became Lake Warriors) and Mwenge in the remaining matches, with the visit ending with an aggregate score of 11-4 to Merrington’s men. Bobby Kerr was one of the senior names involved and was reputedly very complimentary with regards to what appears to have been an intriguing trip, but it is a shame that team line ups and the like are not known for what remain to date our only games in Africa.

Saturday 20 May 1978

Tour match

Kenya Breweries 2 (Oloo 32’, Nwakolo 74’)

Sunderland 0

Watson (left) alongside fellow youngster Gordon Chisholm. The pair both went on the tour to Kenya before making their senior debuts in the Anglo-Scottish cup shortly after returning to Wearside.

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