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Soccer - League Division One - Manchester United v Sunderland - Old Trafford - Manchester - 1982

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On This Day (28th August 1982): Sunderland shock the European champions on opening day!

Against a backdrop of the opposition unsettling our star defender, Alan Durban’s boys travelled to the European Cup holders to kick off the new season – and pulled off a major shock.

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

After promotion to Division One under Ken Knighton in 1979-80, Sunderland had two years of narrowly avoiding the drop.

In the first year, Mick Docherty finished the job after Knighton was sacked, while Alan Durban was the man in charge for the second after leaving his post at Stoke City to take the reins at Roker.

In that first year under Durban, young players such as Barry Venison, Nick Pickering and Colin West came through the ranks to prove they were worthy of first-team action in the first division, and a hefty fee of £350,000 was shelled out to St Johnstone for an 18-year-old Ally McCoist.

The 1982-83 season was Durban’s second in charge, and despite the ongoing building process, there was a need to steer clear away from the dogfight at the bottom end of the table, as Durban himself suggested ahead of the new season:

We are in a better overall situation than a year ago. This side is as good as the one I had at Stoke two seasons ago - and that team finished 11th in the first division. I have told the players that and I mean it. Obviously, I am taking into account the manner in which we finished last season. We were playing well and we didn’t want the season to end.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Arsenal v Sunderland
Ally McCoist
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

On paper, the fixtures hadn’t been kind, with the opening day being a simple trip to European Cup winners Aston Villa.

Although their league form suffered as they finished 11th after being crowned as league champions the year before, Villa were able to focus on the European Cup, and a famous Peter Withe goal in Rotterdam was enough to see them defeat Bayern Munich in the final to lift the coveted trophy.

The build-up for the clash at Villa Park centred around 25-year-old Sunderland defender Shaun Elliott, who Villa boss Tony Barton had publicly stated in the 48 hours ahead of kick-off, was a player he would like to add to his ranks in the West Midlands:

I will not now be talking to the Sunderland manager Alan Durban about Shaun Elliott until after the game on Saturday.

To do anything now would place unfair pressure on Shaun Elliott. It seems clear though that the deal will go through although it will have to go to an independent tribunal.

Sunderland want £650,000 for Elliott but my offer will be nowhere near that.

With Elliott being placed in a strange situation ahead of such a big game, he was obviously asked about the situation by the local media and discussed the ongoing saga:

I have been placed under pressure by both managers. I’m the one in the middle and the one who has to blot everything out of the mind. But as far as Sunderland are concerned I will be 110 per cent committed to them on Saturday.

It’s going to be strange but my objective on Saturday is to stop Villa scoring. Whatever happens after the game won’t interfere with the 90 minutes I will give to Sunderland.

Obviously after the game I will be interested to discuss terms Villa are offering. I am a free agent and that’s my right.

Meanwhile, Rob Hindmarch’s suspension meant that new signing Ian Atkins, who joined from Shrewsbury Town, would make his Sunderland debut against the reigning European champions.

And, in the early stages, he was possibly wishing his debut had been delayed.

Eighteen-year-old Mark Walters was rewarded a place in the starting XI for his full debut for his hometown club and ran the show in the first half. The home side were completely in control and it was no surprise that with just over 20 minutes gone, they took the lead.

European Cup final hero Withe was the provider, nodding the ball back across goal onto the head of Gordon Cowans, who beat Chris Turner to open the scoring.

It wouldn’t be until the hour mark when Durban’s side threatened to get back into the game, and to the surprise of everyone, Colin West scored a simple header to level things at 1-1, very much against the run of play.

Surprise elevated to shock a few moments later when McCoist drove towards goal and forced a smart save from Jimmy Rimmer. The ball fell to Stan Cummins, whose shot was blocked on the line, but it fell to McCoist, who hammered home.

To put the icing on an unlikely gift-wrapped cake, Pickering added a third with six minutes remaining to leave Villa shell-shocked and facing a surprise defeat to open the season.

And, to top it all off, Elliott ended up staying at Sunderland until 1986.

Saturday 28th August, 1982

Division One

Villa Park

Aston Villa 1-3 Sunderland

[Cowans 23’ - West 60’, McCoist 65’, Pickering 84’]

Sunderland: Turner, Venison, Munro, Atkins, Chisholm, Elliott, Buckley, West, McCoist, Pickering, Cummins Substitute not used: Rowell

Aston Villa: Rimmer, Swain, Williams, Evans, McNaught, Mortimer, Bremner, Walters, Withe (Heard), Cowans, Morley

Attendance: 22,945


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