Sunderland’s Division Two fortunes during Alan Brown’s second stint on Wearside were often middling, but the Roker manager, who had previously masterminded Sunderland’s first-ever promotion while at the same level, was often looking to the longer term instead of chasing immediate results.
His coaching methods and ability to nurture young talent would eventually inspire many future managers, most notably the one and only Brian Clough, of course, but the benefits were not always seen straight away, and a jump back up into the topflight rarely seemed likely.
Then again, reaching for the stars was not his remit at this stage in 1971 anyway – the club was in a rut, and so Brown’s first targets were merely stopping the rot and putting in place the foundations for a substantial rebuild. Relegated the previous year and with the board desperate to balance the books, the ‘Bomber’ had to build his squad up over time; performances were mixed as a result, but a win at Blackburn Rovers earlier in the campaign had provided some optimism over what could lay ahead, and the return clash on this day saw the Lads take another forward step.
The visitors happened to include two players in their starting XI who would also go on to enjoy success as coaches at SAFC. By the end of the decade, defender Ken Knighton had joined the backroom staff to work under Jimmy Adamson, before then taking over the reins himself and emulating Brown by orchestrating a return to Division One, whilst in the late 1980s goalkeeper Roger Jones would be brought to the club by Denis Smith to take charge of the reserves. Their focus for the time being though was coming away with a result, with the Lancashire outfit battling against the drop.
The prospect of this being a winnable game, however, did little to boost the attendance. The ailing results and tight finances were harmful to supporter morale, but rising inflation and high unemployment were also massive factors in a country-wide fall in crowds. There was also a new consideration to take into account – at the start of the month, the new Divorce Reform Act had come into effect in England and Wales and meant that it was no longer essential for either partner to prove ‘fault’ before a separation was formalised.
Statistics later revealed that divorces in the UK during the year topped 100,000 for the first time, with many others presumably having to reassess their relationships and work at keeping their marriages going. With attitudes changing too, it was going to be harder than ever justifying the decision to spend a Saturday afternoon at the match, and barely 10,000 souls were still willing and able to see their loved ones in red and white against Blackburn. It hardly proved to be a hot date either; while on paper, it looked like a good game with plenty of goals, the quality witnessed by the sparsely populated terraces was minimal.
The early signs were good but after building a two goal lead Sunderland seemed to fall into a comfort zone and got sloppy. A sticky playing surface didn’t help either, with Gordon Harris one of the few players able to judge his passing. Eamon Rogers meanwhile was the dangerman for Rovers, knowing that defenders were struggling to turn sharply he was aggressive in his approach and tried to take his man on as often as possible.
Blackburn had also been decent in the first few minutes but when Freddie Goodwin fouled Dennis Tueart they fell apart briefly. Martin Harvey took the set piece, and when Harris headed it on Tueart was there to score, with Brian Chambers following up moments later with a second. The midfielder was starting to make his way having made his senior debut a couple of months earlier, and this was his first senior goal – it was a cracker too having run through the defence, but there was some controversy attached to it due to the linesman flagging for offside only to be overruled.
Rovers were not happy but after the break they returned with their own quick blitz. A long ball caught the home defence out and when Terry Eccles latched onto it, he was able to put his shot into the net via the body of Jim Montgomery to bring his side back into things. Rogers soon levelled the contest up when he took in a pass and thrashed in, and the shell shocked Lads then went within a whisker of going behind when he missed a self-made chance following another strong run.
That escape felt like the catalyst for Brown’s men to pull themselves together. Although not at their best it was encouraging to see them grind out a victory, the win being secured when Harris pushed a free kick to Cec Irwin, who in turn swung a right wing cross onto the head of Richie Pitt at the far post. Like Chambers, Pitt took his chance to notch a first goal, and it proved to be the difference. Sunderland were content to run down the clock during the final 20 minutes and were organised enough to avoid any late scares.
It didn’t take long for the crowd to disperse at full time. Any fans heading towards the town were met however with a large police presence following trouble in the aftermath of an FA
Cup tie with Orient earlier in the month when several shop windows in the centre of Sunderland had been put out. The authorities were taking no chances and had positioned officers at every corner almost to try and avoid a repeat, but in hindsight this was a tad overzealous given the result and relatively few in attendance.
There were no incidents recorded across the potential flashpoints such as the train or bus stations, and so the main story was to be Sunderland’s coach instead, and how he was looking to continue the turnaround…
Saturday 30 January 1971
Football League Division Two
Sunderland 3 (Tueart 11’, Chambers 13’, Pitt 67’)
Blackburn Rovers (Eccles 48’, Rogers 54’)
Sunderland: Montgomery; Irwin, Harvey; Todd, Pitt, Porterfield; Kerr, Harris; Chambers (Park 65’), Hughes, Tueart.
Roker Park, attendance 10,354