Easter, bunnies, eggs, groups of youths gathering to set light to litter bins and abandoned sheds, and that time of the season where things, traditionally, “sort themselves out.” Not only is Easter imminent, but we’re into the last few weeks and games of the season. We’ve seen the fixtures of the other sides up around us, and we’ve been furiously banging possible scores into spread-sheets to create every possible scenario for 7:30pm on May 4th. Easter should sort things out. No it won’t, not this season.
Of course, that’s because there were, traditionally, a load of games in a relatively short time, and therefore a chance to create a gap between yourselves and your rivals for promotion or relegation. An even bigger gap if you happen to play one or more of those rivals, and since the advent of three points for a win, that gap could, in theory, be anything up to nine points. Except that since the advent of three points for a win, the number of games played over the Easter period had tended to be two instead of three, and in some cases only one or even none. This season, especially since the turn of the year, we’ve been playing two games most weeks anyway, and with no midweek game between Cov (the less said the better) and Donny, Easter 2019 is just another two game week, with the only difference being that we play on Friday and Monday rather than Saturday and Tuesday. Perhaps it’s the usual nostalgia goggles clouding our memory of the Good Old Days and making us think that Easter games came on Friday, Saturday, and Monday every year, because they didn’t, but it certainly was a time of year when games seemed to come thick and fast.
A couple of seasons back, when we were involved, there were no Easter games in the Premier League, as it had been set aside for an “International Break.” Over the last few seasons we’ve sort of got used to the Easter weekend as a unique part of the season gradually dissolving from the fixture list.
Back in the day (here he goes again. “..when all that was fields, cost threppence, and was made of wood, and footballers were called Billy or Jack…”) Easter was the time when choirboys traded in their contralto voices for a few days of basso before partial recovery to a healthy baritone – all brought on by roaring their support for the Lads on Easter Friday, Easter Saturday, and Easter Monday. This sort of thing went on right up to the seventies, and even further back, Easter weekends were paired with Christmas, when the done thing was to play a team on Christmas Day, then the reverse fixture on Boxing Day.
SAFC 1 Orient 0 (Malone, thunderbolt at the Roker End), Boro 2 SAFC 2 (Hughes, Watson, all four goals in twelve first half minutes), Bolton 1 SAFC 3 (Tueart, Lathan 2, and Bolton’s from Roger Hunt). That was Easter Friday, Saturday, and Monday in 1971. SAFC 0 Hull 1, SAFC 4 Burnley 3 (Watson 2, Coleman, Hughes, with three of our goals coming in four second half minutes to come from 1-3 down), Preston 1 SAFC 3 (Watson, Porterfield, Tueart) - that was 1972. 1973 was a bit mad, so we had Easter Friday off because we’d played at Burnley on the Tuesday and won 2-0 at Hull (Halom, Hughes) on Saturday before beating Cardiff 2-1 (Hughes, Tueart) at home on Monday then losing 0-1 at Forest the next day. For the record, we played nine games that April, but managed to win our first game in May. At Wembley, in case you’d forgotten.
This sort of thing went on until 1980, when we dropped back to “just” two games over the weekend, usually Saturday and Monday, with the odd exception, such as 1992. Our FA Cup run had played havoc with the fixtures, so we had to squeeze six of our ten April games into twelve days around Easter. In 1997 we played just the one – against Durham City – because England played the next day.
The same happened in 2005, except there was no game against Durham City.
Looking at how the Easter programme “sorted things out”, 1975 provided a good example for us. We headed into March in second place in Division 2, a position we’d held since mid-November as we chased promotion. After a defeat at Bristol Rovers knocked us down to third, we quickly got back to second with a draw at home to Oldham – then came Easter. A Good Friday victory over Orient was followed by a win at Bolton on Easter Monday, but then came April and our nine-game March caught up with us. After a win over Hull, there came a defeat to Oxford that dropped us to third before a win over Bristol City and a final day defeat at Villa that left us in fourth. No Play-offs, no promotion. Nowt. Did Easter sort that season out? Probably, as part of a manic month of fixtures.
The following season, we went in to April in second place and wound up for Easter by drawing at Notts County and beating Blackburn at Roker. Good Friday saw a certain Gary Rowell score his first Sunderland goal as we won 4-1 at Hull, then came promotion rivals Bolton at home on Easter Monday. In front of 51,983 people, and against a Trotters team that featured Barry Siddall and Peter Reid, and despite a goal from Sam Allardyce, we won 2-1 to maintain top spot and deny Bolton vital points. Despite a loss at Blackpool – the day after the Bolton game! – we beat Portsmouth on the last day to go up as Champions. Had Bolton beaten us with Big Sam’s goal, we’d have finished on equal points (54) and with a goal difference of +28 to Bolton’s +30. We’d therefore still have been above Bristol City and West Brom, the other eventually promoted sides, but Bolton would have gone up as Champions and West Brom would’ve stayed down. Did Easter sort the season out? Mebbe. We’d still have gone up, but Bolton would have joined us had that result between us had been reversed.
Last season, a 4-1 Good Friday win lifted us to 23rd and gave us a bit of hope, but an Easter Monday loss to Sheff Wed at home killed that one. The year before, we only had a game on Easter Saturday, and a draw with West Ham couldn’t lift us off the bottom, which is where we stayed. Did Easter sort out those seasons? Not really.
That was then and this is now: once Easter 2019, Donny and Peterborough are over with, we’ll have three games to play, which is one more than everybody but Fleetwood, Pompey, and Peterborough. As our game in hand is against Fleetwood, logic dictates that the other two play each other – which will give us something to talk about at halftime on April 30th as we watch the Celebrity Boxing bout between Joey Barton and a programme seller who happens to be in his way.
Easter 2019 won’t sort things out, but it can go a long way towards it. While it might in reality just be another instance of two games in four days, which we’ve done often enough this campaign, it’s psychological. It’s Easter, and the Easter “sorting out” thing is still part of the psyche of fans, managers, and players alike. It’s up to Sunderland to take this on board - fans, manager, and players alike - and for Sunderland to do the sorting out.