Liverpool were often the team to beat during the 1980s but during the first half of the decade, Sunderland had managed to record two memorable victories against the otherwise dominant Reds.
1981 had seen the Lads retain their top flight status in memorable fashion with an against-the-odds 1-0 success at Anfield, and in 1983 we repeated the scoreline on Merseyside under manager Alan Durban.
The return fixture that season was to take place on this day in 1984, with the team looking to upset the odds once more, having also secured a point the last time they’d met at Roker Park.
However, although those results would’ve given us encouragement ahead of the latest clash, the Lads would’ve also been fully aware of the task that lay ahead of them.
The visitors were reigning league champions and were well on their way to a third successive title, having already built up another cushion at the top of Division One. In addition, Joe Fagan’s side had an even greater incentive to win after a suffering a shock FA Cup exit to second tier Brighton and Hove Albion one week prior.
Stung by the defeat but with an insatiable appetite regardless, Liverpool were on the warpath.
They looked to play at a high tempo and get into the faces of Durban’s men but to give the Lads their due, they more than matched their illustrious opponents and gave as good as they got.
The swirling Wearside wind did few favours for either side, but both teams looked to get the ball down and play whenever they could, with the players carving out some very good chances during an entertaining encounter.
Ian Rush had his side’s best chance in the first half but he wasted it uncharacteristically, whereas Sunderland did take a couple of minutes to get up to speed. However, once Paul Bracewell and Mark Proctor got a foothold in the middle, we were very impressive.
Shaun Elliott and Gordon Chisholm were working well at the back, while at the other end, Gary Rowell and Leighton James were both unfortunate not to score, with the former seeing his close range attempt hooked off the line whilst the latter brought a superb stop from Bruce Grobbelaar after he’d tried to chip the Zimbabwean international.
Grobbelaar’s opposite number Chris Turner was to have an eventful afternoon too, with the home stopper requiring stitches at half time following a clash with Michael Robinson.
He was still receiving treatment for a head wound when the second half was due to start, but he bravely jumped off the treatment table and got stuck in. Bracewell had also taken a knock in the first half but showed the level of determination within the team as he continued whilst clutching a sponge to his nose.
With Sunderland soldiering on, on both sides continued to go at it, but in the end they had to be content with a 0-0 draw.
Turner was good value for his clean sheet, doing brilliantly to deny a left-footed drive from Craig Johnston, and whilst the former Middlesbrough midfielder had managed to get the ball in the net, the effort was ruled out for a foul in the build up.
Nevertheless, it was the Lads who finished more strongly, with Colin West testing a back four that included Alan Kennedy, and Ian Atkins only just clearing the bar with a late free kick.
Despite the end result, several players had stepped up and this was by no means a lucky outcome against the soon-to-be crowned European champions.
Although not quite a historic result, it was promising nonetheless, particularly given Durban’s continual emphasis on youth. His tenure was to end in just a few weeks’ time and prematurely so in the eyes of most supporters, but he’d always been keen to encourage the squad’s younger prospects and was bringing many talented hopefuls up to a level where they could compete.
Interestingly, this game also gave fans a glimpse into the future, with two other names making early appearances.
In the match day programme, a certain Gary Owers appeared alongside Youth Development Officer George Herd, who would’ve presumably taken great pride in seeing Owers follow in his footsteps and become an energetic Sunderland mainstay.
Also featured was Craig Russell, who was celebrating his tenth birthday in style as the lucky mascot and leading the Lads out onto a pitch he would later grace alongside Owers on many occasions.
Listing Gary Rowell, who he would eventually emulate as a local lad who scored goals for Sunderland, and Bracewell, a future teammate in red and white, as his two favourites, Russell obviously had an eye for a player even at a young age.
The squad at this point certainly had the talent, if not the consistency, and on this latest evidence we were more than good enough to rub shoulders with the very best on our day.
Saturday 4 February 1984
Canon League Division One
Sunderland: Turner, Venison, Chisholm; Elliott, Pickering, Bracewell; Atkins, Proctor, James; Rowell, West