Plymouth arrived without an away win in the season so far but with a chance to be the first team this season to do the double over Sunderland. They also had a highly thought-of centre forward in their ranks, Paul Mariner, who would go on to garner thirty-five England caps and thirteen international goals between 1977 – 1985.
Having seen Ian Porterfield play his last game for us in late December of this season, I was gutted for another of our 1973 heroes, Billy Hughes, whose long-term injury just as he was coming right back into form had prompted Bob Stokoe into the transfer market for a forward/winger, and Roy Greenwood would make his home debut.
In keeping with common practice at the time, Hull manager John Kaye ‘talked up’ Greenwood and the price they wanted for him as being £200,000. When the deal was done at £140,000, Kaye declared himself very happy with the fee received and added for good measure that Greenwood was “hated” by half of the Hull support!
The influential Tony Towers was ruled out of this game with a viral infection, so Bob Moncur took over the captaincy, and yet another of our 73’ legends, Vic Halom, made his first appearance in over a month, having recently gone onto the transfer list.
Just under 30,000 expectant fans filled a noisy Roker Park, and I was one of them as the game kicked off with Sunderland attacking the Fulwell End.
It took me less than a couple of minutes to realise we had a real game on our hands, as Plymouth moved the ball around our park and the lively Rafferty and Mariner moved our centre-back pairing here, there, and everywhere!
On five minutes, Rafferty sent a rasping shot goal-bound; Montgomery did well to grab this at the foot of his post. At this point, we had hardly had a touch of the ball, let alone a shot at goal!
I had expected Pop Robson to drop back into midfield and Halom to play up front with Holden, but in a surprise move, Halom played in midfield and once he found his feet, he had a good game (Stokoe informed the press afterwards that midfield had been Vic’s original position when he had first encountered him as an apprentice at Charlton).
Eventually, we began to win some ball and play. A free kick from Kerr was cleared to Halom, who placed a dangerous cross into the box that a defender just got his head to before Holden.
Then Kerr and Malone exchanged passes (it was always good to watch these two at work; they seemed to read each other’s game so well and were a real attacking threat once they got at it). Malone raced clear and placed another beautiful cross just out of reach of goalkeeper Aleksic, right onto Holden's head, who unfortunately dinked it just wide of the post.
Moncur then got in on the crossing act, placing a great ball to the far post and the inrushing Bobby Kerr. With the goalie stranded, Kerr’s meaty header sped goalwards only to be hoofed’ away by a defender.
The ginger debutant then got in on the action, brilliantly beating his marker and flighting another far post cross to Pop Robson who had ghosted into the box unmarked. He met the cross in his stride but placed it just past the post.
Plymouth then came back into the game when Joe Bolton mistimed a jump for a cross, it dropped invitingly for Mariner, but like a seasoned defender, Halom slid in and cleared the danger.
Back came Sunderland in what was proving now to be a very entertaining game. Greenwood once again beat his marker and arrowed a pass to Halom lurking with intent twenty-five yards out. His shot cannoned from his foot but was hit straight at the goalkeeper who looked pleased to have hung onto the ball.
Greenwood once again beat his marker to set up Holden right in front of goal. His powerful header just shaved the post.
Montgomery was then called into action, just grasping a good cross with Mariner right at his shoulder.
A Malone slip set Mariner in on goal, but he was badly fouled by Dennis Longhorn. I was surprised that he was not even booked, for a high challenge that would have been a straight red card in today’s game. Mariner required lengthy treatment and took his feet gingerly (not out of respect for Roy Greenwood).
The resultant free kick landed at centre-half Green’s thunderous right foot; thankfully, it was not an accurate right foot as the cannonball sped right across the goal.
Plymouth were now dominating the ball and had three good attempts on goal, the best of which was a powerful Rafferty header downwards right in the middle of the goal, which bounced up and just over the bar.
Sunderland countered with another dangerous Halom cross and a Kerr pass to Longhorn on the edge of the box well-placed that saw his shot go high and wide.
On thirty-nine minutes, it was no surprise when Mariner put the Mariners ahead as he just got in front of his marker and planted a well-placed header goalwards. Bolton’s despairing attempt to block only saw him hook the ball into the back of the goal.
Traditionally going a goal down at Roker Park triggered the Roker Roar, and that is exactly what happened in this game, to a raucous noise Sunderland threw themselves at Plymouth and were unlucky not to equalise immediately as first Malone saw a cracking volley ricochet to safety and then Halom cracked another thunderbolt that hit the post with the keeper rooted.
It had been a cracking half of football, and despite being a goal down, the Lads were applauded from the pitch at the break.
The second half saw resumed without the impressive Mariner, whose injury toward the end of the first half meant he could not continue. Horswill took the stage for the Mariners and was given warm applause.
A mighty effort from Sunderland who dominated the ball with slick rapid passing and crosses then ensued. Halom appeared to be reveling in his midfield role, Kerr and Robson were popping up all over the park, and Greenwood continued his ability to beat his marker and find his man with cross or pass.
In a deadly twenty-minute spell, Sunderland unlocked the stubborn Argyle defence with two almost identical goals, with Halom instrumental in both.
On forty-seven minutes Vic’ set Greenwood away to the dead ball line with a glorious pass. Greenwood’s accurate low cross was met by Mel Holden a couple of yards out and he smashed it into the back of the net, to great acclaim from all four corners of Roker.
Then on sixty-six minutes Halom again placed a pass his former teammate Ian Porterfield would have been proud of, rolling a peach to Pop Robson who danced to the dead ball line and pinged a low cross to the onrushing Kerr, who planted the ball into the back of the net to put us in front. Roker Park was bouncing as it looked like we were going to sweep Plymouth away for a few minutes with attack after attack.
Argyle though resisted and the game got a bit feisty. Longhorn was booked and then Burrows and inevitably Horswill as the tackles began to fly.
To their credit, Plymouth never stopped pushing for the equaliser, which also meant we were in the game for a break-away.
The crowd had witnessed a cracking game and played their part as both teams were applauded from the pitch. Greenwood had shown up impressively in his home debut but had the Man of the Match trophy squeaked away from him by the new attacking midfield phenomenon, Vic Halom.
Sunderland stayed on top of Division Two with thirty-six points, with Bolton and Bristol City two points behind them. We would go through this season undefeated at home in the league, winning nineteen, drawing two, and losing only one game in front of a 50,000+ crowd to Malcolm Allison’s Crystal Palace in the quarter-final of the FA Cup.
Division Two // Date - 17/01/1976
Venue - Roker Park // Attendance - 29,737
Sunderland 2 -1 Plymouth Argyle
Scorers - Mariner 39mins, Holden 47mins, Kerr 66mins
Sunderland - Montgomery, Malone, Bolton, Moncur, Clarke, Kerr, Halom, Longhorn, Greenwood, Holden, Robson. Sub - Henderson
Plymouth Argyle – Aleksic, Darke, Burrows, Sutton, Green, Delve, Randall, Johnson, Rafferty, Mariner (45mins Horswill), McCauley.