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On This Day (19th July 1978): Former boss Bob Stokoe swoops to sign Sunderland man Holden!

The local press were reporting the departure of a player who could divide the Sunderland fans but nonetheless was regarded as something of a character by those that saw him play. 

Super Mel Holden was on his way to Blackpool, and I for one was not happy!

Melville George Holden was not on the transfer list and was still under contract, but Manager Jimmy Adamson had made it very clear that the Scot was not part of his plan moving forward.

Holden had not been included in the four-game tour party to Kenya, despite making a comeback from a knee injury that had dogged him throughout 1977/78 season. He finished this season in the reserves as Adamson preferred Bob Lee (who had previously played with Holden up front in a two-pronged bean-pole attack), with Gary Rowell playing just behind him. Adamson had even played Roy Greenwood in the number 9 shirt in front of Holden at times.

Holden was quoted as saying: “I am with a big club now and for that reason I would be prepared to stay, but there seems little point in staying if you do not get on with people.” A just less-than-subtle dig at his relationship with Jimmy Adamson.

Our former manager, the Messiah Bob Stokoe had taken over at Blackpool and was determined to put a squad together to push for promotion in the 1978/79 season.

Stokoe returned for a player he had bought to Sunderland in May 1975 for £120,000 to spearhead our attack. Holden’s fifteen goals for us that season (1975/76) were only part of his story in that promotion-winning campaign.

Football Manager Bob Stokoe Photo by Ray Wright/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images

The mayhem he could cause in the box at corners and free kicks, as well as a canny ability (on a good day) to hold the ball up with his back to goal and lay it off to a team-mate were a big part of his modus operandi as a centre forward.

I can remember the first time I saw him play in March 1973. He was part of a very handy Preston team that we faced at Deepdale as we were heading toward the FA Cup semi-finals but still involved in a relegation battle. The Preston team that night also contained an old favourite of mine Jim McNab, and I was looking forward to seeing him play again, but it was the young gangly Holden who caught my eye that game. We won that match 3-1 but Stokoe must have logged the young centre forward's performance as he signed him not once but twice in his managerial career.

Holden could look awkward on the ball, and at times slow and uncoordinated. So much so that many who saw him play at this time have wondered if this were the early signs of the Motor Neurone disease that would so tragically end his life in 1981.

I do not know the truth of that, but having watched many of his games for us, I can vouch for these awkward/uncoordinated passages of play at times, coupled with what could look like a lack of effort or energy.

I can also recall, towering headers, Quinn-like layoffs and goals when we needed them. One goal I particularly remember was in our last home game of the 1976/77 season against Birmingham. He powered a Towers free kick into the back of the net on 84 minutes to give us an extremely hard-fought one-nil victory in front of nigh on 35,000 fans at Roker Park.

The victory sent us into the last two away games with a remarkable chance of avoiding the drop that had looked so likely in January of that year. The young guns in Elliott, Arnott and Rowell rightly took a lot of the plaudits for what ultimately was a heroic failure that season, but Mel Holden (just as he did in our promotion-winning season of 1975/76) more than played his part.

There used to be a banner at the back of the Roker End that proudly stated Super Mel rules the Skies. He was proclaimed by the fans in the rather crude chant “F***ing Hell it's Super Mel.” But he had some bloopers as well. Unfortunately, one of these was against Newcastle at Roker Park (1976/77) in front of 46,500 fans, a game we were winning two-nil. He broke away from the half-way line and with just the keeper and goal at his mercy, contrived to trip over the ball and back-heel it to a retreating defender.

We ended up drawing that game 2-2, some fans never let him forget that one. He also angled a shot from a yard out on an open goal over the bar (against Coventry if memory serves me well). It seemed an almost impossible feat, but he managed it!

Stokoe got Holden for £60,000 and was looking to pair him with Mickey Walsh, whom he had knocked back a £325,000 bid from Birmingham and Dereck Spence, a former Blackpool forward he bought from Olympiakos on the same day as Holden.

Whatever Stokoe was planning did not work out. Mel Holden only played three games for Blackpool before being transferred to PEC Zwolle in the Dutch league, for whom he only played ten games before his illness impacted and he retired from football in 1979.

Within two years and at the age of 26 years old Mel Holden tragically died in 1981. The Motor Neurone disease he had been diagnosed with presented an extremely aggressive deterioration and he spent his last year in a wheelchair and died in a hospice in the Preston area, leaving a wife and young family.

I was sorry to see him leave Sunderland and gutted at his passing in such heart-rending circumstances.

He made a total of seventy-six appearances for us in all competitions scoring twenty-eight goals, and whilst he only played 158 games in his career, he scored at a rate of approximately a goal every three games.

For those of us who did see him play and were present the day we beat West Ham 6-0 at Roker Park in 1977, when Super Mel scored two goals and could have easily scored a hattrick, I leave you with the memory of him racing Giraffe-like toward the Fullwell End arms aloft to the almighty roar of the Roker horde after scoring within two minutes of kick-off.

Super Mel Rules the Skies.


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