Having been helped out of the old First Division by some bloke with a beard, we were tottering along in a far from impressive thirteenth place as we headed into the Christmas period in 1977. For dramatic effect, I’ll start the Christmas period on December 17th, when we lost 2-3 at Bristol Rovers despite goals from Gary Rowell and Bob Lee (Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee. Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Leee, Bob Leee. Sorry, ask yer dad)). For some reason, we didn’t play the following Saturday, perhaps because it was Christmas Eve, instead welcoming Blackpool to Roker on Boxing Day.

Welcome was perhaps the wrong word. Rowell scored another two, with Bob Hatton replying, as we took both points, but things got a bit tetchy when Joe Bolton flew into one of his typical challenges and his opponent flew up in the air. This opponent obviously knew nothing of Joe’s reputation, as he decided to throw a punch at him. It was one of those moments when time seems to stand still – we knew well enough that you just didn’t throw punches at Joe – and everything went into slow motion, with the punch missing its intended target, and the opponent’s face then coming into sharp contact with Joe’s forehead. Joe then walked toward the tunnel as the ref fumbled for his book, and Blackpool’s trainer ran on with some vinegar and brown paper. As footballers were a lot tougher then, the lad wasn’t even subbed, eventually climbing back to his feet and completing the match.

Anyway, back to the “awayday” part… as said earlier, thanks to the fixture list, the one that had given us Christmas Eve off, we played Blackburn away the next day. As I was back in Bishop for Christmas, I arranged a lift in Dowse’s purple Cortina mk 3 along with about six others, if my memory serves me right, as we wanted to be back in town for the traditional Boxing Day night out, sooner than the bus, at any rate. For some reason, my mam had declined my usual offer of a birthday treat at the match, as she did on every birthday, so off we went without her, zipping across the A66 before turning south and deciding that we’d better stop for a pint or two before we got too close to Blackburn.

There was a handy pub, a big job that looked a bit like a giant Swiss cottage, but was called the Saxon, and by some strange coincidence, the Bishop bus had stopped off there, as had our team bus, and Blackpool’s. Presumably Blackpool had stayed in Sunderland after the previous day’s game, which was a bit strange, as they were playing Bolton at home while we played at Blackburn. Anyhow, we soon spotted the player Joe Bolton had fallen out with, as he had a black eye the size of a fried egg and looked like he was trying to pass himself off as a panda. A very miserable panda. There was no sign of Joe, and one of our Lads told us that s he’d not been allowed to travel on the team bus – presumably to prevent a resumption of hostilities – but players of both sides seemed quite happy in each other’s company over their steak and chips. Compulsory fare for 1970s footballers, but fans and players mingling in a pub before a league game?

We had a great bit craic wandering amongst the Sunderland players like kids around a toyshop, and also chatted to Stan Ternent, who was on the Blackpool coaching staff. We reminded him of the time a couple of years earlier when he’d accompanied Monty to a charity football match at our school, and assuring him that we hadn’t travelled by the helicopter he suggested when he discovered what time we’d set off. Cortinas move very fast with a full load and Dowse at the wheel, Stan. For the record, we’d signed Stan from Carlisle a few years before, but he’d knacked his knee before ever playing, only got as far as the sub’s bench on a trip to Brighton and never actually got off it. He never played again, before going into coaching and management. Anyway, as we chatted away, Bob Hatton, who’d played with Stan at Carlisle, bowled over with a hearty “all right, lads?” and joined in the conversation, talking as if we were long lost friends of his. Had we spoken to him before or after a Carlisle game, and he had a bloody good memory, or had he simply mistaken us for somebody else?

We’ll never know, as at this juncture someone from the Bishop bus decided that he’d accost our manager, Jimmy Adamson, demanding, in a less than subtle manner, to know what he was doing with all the money we were allegedly paying him, and suggesting that he get the beers in.

Which he did, to our surprise. Maybe Jimmy simply did feel guilty about his wages, or perhaps he really was a naturally generous bloke. Or maybe he’d heard of the Aclet in Bishop, and that you didn’t mess with those boys even if they did roll up and interrupt your carefully arranged dinner. Whatever the reason, the tension eased, we went back to chatting about football, and Mr Adamson’s reputation in certain parts of Bishop went through the roof. As a mark of respect, the lads didn’t even go for the most expensive drinks, sticking faithfully with what they’d been drinking anyway. Well, apart from a couple of chancers who switched to snakebite, which, apparently, at that time, had never before been served in that part of Lancashire. Thankfully, the bar staff were happy to oblige, presumably grateful for a very profitable session and the chance to learn a new beevy with which to impress the locals. When the teams left, we thanked Jimmy for his hospitality, and reckoned that we had time for a few more pints, as, unlike the players, we didn’t have to get changed when we got to Ewood Park.

Ah, Ewood Park. I always think of Blackburn’s ground in terms of glazed tiles around the turnstiles, Wagon Wheels, and meat pies, rather than the three-quarters of a modern ground that is its present incarnation. I preferred the old version, to be honest, especially given what’s happened to the size of Wagon Wheels since it was modernised, but progress is inevitable in today’s game. What remains unchanged is the ability of the locals to get a free view of the match from the grassy hillside behind the stand on the right of that little terrace usually occupied by the away fans. That little terrace, that seemed much smaller in reality than it looked on the telly, was packed to the rusty rafters with Christmas-spirited Sunderland fans, determined to have a good day out, some, as today, defying the weather in only shirts. T-shirts, as replicas didn’t really exist back then, but at least they had a scarf to keep them warm.

Unfortunately, the game wasn’t much to write home about, but Joe’s enforced absence gave a rare chance for Sand Dancer Tim Gilbert at left back. Behind him was Barry Siddall, and alongside him at the back were Mickey Henderson, a bit of a radgie at times, so Joe’s absence wouldn’t be that keenly felt, Jackie Ashurst, and Mick Docherty. Maybe not a defensive line-up that ranks up there with the greatest, or even most memorable in our history, but one that was high on effort and tenacity. The midfield of Kerr, Wonder Wilf Rostron, Arnott, and Greenwood supported Wayne Entwistle and Gary Rowell, but with Greenwood breaking forward and Rowell equally comfortable dropping back to fill in when this happened, we had a fair amount of flexibility in the side. A crowd of over 22,000 reflected the holiday occasion and is about what we see at Ewood in the 21st century, so not much has changed there. Tim had made the bench only once, and was unused, since leaving it to make his debut exactly a year earlier when he replaced Bob Lee in a defeat at Sid James Park, so this was his full debut and it was an eventful one. Four months after his nineteenth birthday, he got booked, and then, three minutes after future Rovers boss Tony Parkes had put the home side ahead in the second half, fired a low shot from the edge of the box into the net in front of the visiting fans to send us wild with delight. Amongst those wildly celebrating visiting fans was Mr Joe Bolton, who, in the absence of a free ride on the team bus, had simply used the bus from the Barley Mow to get to the game. I wonder if he paid? I think I’d have let him travel as a special guest, if we could have squeezed him into Dowse’s boot.

Despite having brought on Bob Lee to add a bit of height in place of Wayne The Punk before the scoring started, it rather predictably ended 1-1, so we left in a slightly less than festive mood, but still determined to make the most of the season as we snuck round the backstreets to where we’d left the car. Conversation as we flew (not literally) back to the land of the Prince Bishops was naturally enough about our promising new left back. Despite being immediately replaced by Mr Bolton for the next game, Tim was back in for the following eight matches. Sadly, Joe’s dominance at left back restricted Tim to a total of 43 appearances and three goals before he moved to Cardiff in 81, Darlington a year later, and thence to North Shields. Even more sadly, he was only 36, and coaching back in Sunderland, when he died in 1995.

Thanks to Dowse’s helicopter-speed Cortina, we were back in Bishop in plenty of time to secure our seats in the back room of The Cumberland, carry on the Christmas celebrations, and gather our thoughts for our next trip. It was Christmas after all, and in only four days were we’d have to be flying back over the Pennines to Burnley. Maybe in a helicopter, as it would be New Year’s Eve, and we’d need to be back sharpish.