Recently appointed manager Alan Durban was hoping to impose his own style at Sunderland, but it was his team’s new look kit that was causing angst amongst supporters on this day in 1981.
Initially showcased via a late July photo shoot featuring Jeff Clarke and local model Jane Davison, the ‘candy red’ and black pinstripe shirts were first seen in action at Heart of Midlothian as part of a whistle stop tour of Scotland and the Borders.
Fixtures against Hibernian and Dundee quickly followed, but it was at the final leg, played against Berwick Rangers, that the issue seemed to hit home.
The proximity of Shielfield Park to Wearside and the fact British Rail had been advertising a special return fare of £2.50 that would get folk back into town before midnight meant there were plenty of Sunderland fans in attendance - and for most of them it was their first chance to view the strips up close.
Rather than the usual optimistic mood ahead of a new season then, the atmosphere temporarily turned sour once supporters had got a feel for things.
The famed Doug Weatherall reported the following morning that several vociferous chants could be heard as the travelling crowd voiced their displeasure over the break from the traditional red and white, but at least the football itself was a bit more pleasing to the eye. The Lads had come from two goals behind to earn a draw at Dens Park the day before and were now able to continue that momentum, courtesy of a Gary Rowell diving header with almost half an hour gone and then John Cooke’s curling chip just after the break.
Those two superbly taken goals were enough to give Durban’s men victory, although at the other end Chris Turner had been kept busy. The goalkeeper had been in top form during the trip and needed to be at his best once more to tip a Paul McGlinchey effort over the bar shortly after the opener. The general performance was enough to quieten down some of the sartorial concerns though, and the introduction of Mick Docherty as a substitute towards the end boosted spirits further.
The popular midfielder had not featured since 1979 due to injury and had since moved onto the coaching staff, but was making a tentative comeback in the hope that he could resume his playing career. It was clear to all that ‘the Doc’ still had the necessary quality too, although sadly the return proved to be a false dawn with his knee unable to withstand the ongoing rigours of the sport.
Prior to Docherty’s cameo the two club’s respective youth sides had also taken each other on, Sunderland winning that one 2-0 as well thanks to a brace from Barry Wardrobe, a somewhat ironic name given the grumbles over how the Lads were turned out.
In addition to the shirt design, manufacturers Le Coq Sportif had compounded matters by opting for red shorts, and even though their rather more conventional blue change offering was a bit of a classic the sheer mention of their name still brings some fans of a certain age into a cold sweat.
Although reproduction versions of the top are often spotted out and about nowadays, many people’s opinions of it are yet to soften four decades on, whilst at the time the majority seemingly were pleased to see the back of the kit when despite a three year agreement originally being announced it was ditched after only two.
Sunderland’s 2022-23 strip took inspiration from the Nike effort that followed and it has mainly received a positive response, but it would take a brave individual to ever contemplate a return to what had come before it…
Wednesday 5 August 1981
Berwick Rangers 0
Sunderland 2 (Rowell 28’, Cooke 48’)
Sunderland: Turner; Hinnigan, Clarke, Allardyce, Munro; Arnott, Whitworth, Cooke, Dunn (Docherty 71’), Ritchie, Rowell. Unused: Hindmarch, Chisholm