The last day of the 1983-84 season had seen another great escape, with Sunderland beating Leicester City 2-0 at Filbert Street to secure their top-flight place.
It had been a tough season with a tight finish, as evidenced by things going down to the final game but registering a 13th place finish – only four points separating us from 20th placed Birmingham when the final reckoning game.
The goalscorers at Filbert Street were Lee Chapman and Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson (who at 38 years and 183 days became Sunderland’s oldest scorer, a record that still stands today). Pop was in his third spell at his hometown club, having returned from Chelsea the previous summer to take up a player/assistant manager role under Alan Durban. In the 83-84 season, he’d played 12 games, seven of which were starts, and scored three – and had also stepped in as caretaker manager for a 2-2 draw with Arsenal after Durban had been sacked.
Durban’s replacement, Len Ashurst, had turned down the Sunderland hotseat in 1979 when manager of Fourth Division Newport County, but had jumped at the opportunity to take over from Durban, and just about steered the club over the finishing line.
Robson had been told he would be kept on in his assistant role – which prompted him to turn down the opportunity to talk to Crystal Palace about their vacant manager’s job, which soon went to Steve Coppell.
However, on this day 39 years ago, the papers were full of Pop’s sacking, as Ashurst had decided he did, after all, want to bring in his own assistant.
This has come right out of the blue. Three or four weeks ago I was told there was a job for me here. As the previous manager’s right-hand man, I knew my job here was in jeopardy. But after what was said I had expected to start the new season at Sunderland.
The decision had Robson questioning his future in football altogether, after two decades of moving about – primarily between the north east and London.
I have got to starting thinking seriously about whether to look for a job outside of the game. I have constantly uprooted my family and now it’s time to think about greater stability. Things are so uncertain in football, it’s unfair on family life. I have constantly uprooted my family and now it’s time to think about greater stability.
I’m not blaming people for getting rid of me because everyone wants their own men around them. But it’s the timing which has left me disillusioned.
Ashurst hoped to bring ex-Portsmouth boss Frank Burrows, who at the time was one of Lawrie McMenemy’s coaches at Southampton, to Roker as his new assistant.
Pop is a model professional, but attitudes and circumstances change over time and I have reassessed my management team. I will have a very strong management team to start the season off. I had a bit of a conscience over Pop but decisions have to be made.
Burrows did indeed arrive at Roker to work alongside Ashurst in what was ultimately a relegation season, while Pop did stay in football, returning to another of his former clubs, Carlisle for a season.
Far from quitting football altogether, however, Pop went on to have another three spells at Sunderland – spending three years in the late 80s as ‘community coach’ before having five years as part of Peter Reid’s backroom staff as reserve team coach, and a further two year stint as chief scout between 2011-13. He also held various coaching and scouting positions at Manchester United, Leeds, Chelsea and Birmingham – a testament to his footballing knowledge and prowess.
As things turned out, this was the beginning of a three-year downward spiral – we may well have been better off appointing Pop as manager back in 1984...