Although they only just missed out on promotion at the end of the 1978-79 season, Sunderland’s overall away record was still very respectable. There were certainly some eye catching performances and some memorable victories, including of course a famous Gary Rowell inspired win at Newcastle United.
The Lads were not that great on the road in the opening weeks of the campaign however, with two early Anglo Scottish defeats setting the tone. Jimmy Adamson’s men arrived at Turf Moor on this day looking to reverse the trend therefore but knew it would be a tough task – not only was the former Burnley man set for a hostile reception, but the only point his side had picked up on their travels thus far had been at Crystal Palace where they surrendered a lead late on and had been forced to settle for a draw.
Adamson was not the most popular figure with either set of supporters. He had been a Burnley legend as both a player and manager, but his time with the club ended on a sour note when he was sacked in 1976, whilst on Wearside a lack of consistency and his perceived aloofness had been causing friction with the fanbase. It led to a fair amount of needle in the build-up, and that carried on into the match itself, which proved to be a feisty yet memorable affair with Sunderland securing a magnificent victory despite being down to nine men for the entirety of the second half.
Both dismissals took place in the final throes of the first half, with Mick Henderson being the first to receive his marching orders. Trudging into the changing room, he was quickly caught up by Joe Bolton and assumed his fellow fullback was merely coming in for the half time break – only to be told that he too had been given a red following a separate incident.
It was a crazy end to the opening 45 and it has since been claimed by the squad that Adamson was so apoplectic by the whole business that he refrained from giving any sort of team talk or instructions. The players were left to come up with their own revised game plan therefore, and agreed to go for broke.
Perhaps there was a touch of kidology by Adamson, but the decision to try and catch Burnley out proved inspired. The hosts clearly expected their depleted opponents to sit back and make themselves hard to break down, but they instead used the space and took a chance, pushing at the shell shocked Clarets whenever they could. Some superb skill from Alan Brown created an opportunity for Gary Rowell to head Sunderland into the lead, and he soon made it 2-0 from the spot as he stepped up and showed his customary composure under pressure.
All hell had broken loose over the course of the afternoon and yet the Lads had shown a remarkable level of self-control when it mattered most. Tempers continued to fray and Trevor Morley did get a goal back to make it a tight finish, but Sunderland’s phenomenal work rate won out in the end – not that things settled down much at full time. The bad blood had clearly spilled over the touchline with coach Ken Knighton being cautioned for speaking out of turn, and it was clear from the tone used afterwards by home boss Harry Potts that he was far from impressed.
A former Turf Moor teammate of Adamson, this was Potts’ second spell in charge having previously managed Sunderland deputy manager Dave Merrington and midfielder Mick Docherty when they were at Burnley. Future Rokerite Leighton James was involved in an altercation with Docherty, who Potts accused of grabbing the winger by the throat, and despite being a Hetton-le-Hole native, the Clarets boss had some strong words for the Wearsiders;
“No team of mine has ever, or will ever, play like that. I would rather pack in the game than sink to Sunderland’s level. “It’s a man’s game and players must go in hard to get the ball, but they went for the man. “As a match it was a shambles, and I was disgusted at the way Sunderland went about it. “One of the players spat in the face of Tony Morley.”
The local press back in the north east were not convinced though – perhaps sensing a touch of sour grapes, the inference was that Potts was trying to deflect a little. Henderson and Bolton were both sent off for two bookable offences, all for fouls the journalists felt could have gone unpunished on another day, while it was put forward that the referee had lost a bit of control amidst what was admittedly a highly charged atmosphere. What wasn’t up for debate was the work rate shown by Sunderland’s players, or the fact that they were happy to stick up for themselves and get stuck in during a superb team effort.
Whether he instigated the second half show or not, this was a coup for Adamson and he could afford to be a little smug in his own post-match debrief.
Fully aware that his words would be heard loud and clear by not only his former club but also any of the Roker supporters who had been increasingly critical of him, he denied sending his charges out with any special instructions or a license to play dirty, and instead looked to focus on the positives:
My team talk before the match was about playing the ball around.
This was the best performance I have seen in a second half when it was nine men against 11. This was one of my proudest moments. In fact, it was the most professional performance from a team I have played in, coached or managed.
He went on to praise the work of his coaches, who he stated he would often ask to instigate practise sessions on the training ground where one side had an extra man just so that they could be prepared for circumstances exactly like this. He couldn’t give up the chance of a little barb at Potts either, claiming that he couldn’t imagine losing a game if ever he found himself in the same situation.
What he wasn’t so happy about 24 hours later was what he felt was the cost of being a big club, with Adamson lamenting the fact that a move for Coventry City striker Alan Green had fallen down because he was quoted a much larger fee than other clubs that had shown an interest. The incredible nature of Sunderland’s first away win of season was still a huge boost for confidence though, with the side showing they could do it with their backs against the wall and whilst in somebody else’s back yard.
Away form didn’t pick up immediately – two of the next four were lost and the shame for Adamson was that he wasn’t around the see the upturn. Following his departure in order to take over at Leeds United, Billy Elliott was drafted in to see out the campaign and was a much more popular figure from the off. Signed from Burnley of all places, he was an esteemed player at Roker during the 1950s and formed part of the backroom staff that brought FA Cup glory in 1973 – he came within a whisker too of delivering promotion this time round, and whilst he was thwarted by a couple of costly defeats at home the team remained unbeaten on the road for the rest of the season.
Saturday 23 September 1978
Football League Division Two
Burnley 1 (Morley 75’)
Sunderland 2 (Rowell 60’, 69’ (pen)) Henderson sent off 43’, Bolton sent off 45’
Sunderland: Siddall, Henderson, Bolton, Docherty, Coady, Elliott, Chisholm, Brown (Greenwood 80’), Entwistle, Rostron, Rowell
Turf Moor, attendance 12,964