The 1976-1977 season had been one of particularly high drama for Sunderland A.F.C. and, as has so often happened with us in our recent history, everything hinged on the last game of the season. Our form in the first half of the season was terrible and after manager Bob Stokoe had resigned early on, nine league defeats in a row between late November and mid-January had left us at the bottom of the First Division. Then something clicked into place. We managed two goalless draws, though that also meant that we hadn’t scored in eleven league games but then one glorious Friday evening Mel Holden managed to score and we beat Bristol City 1-0. When I found out that score it was like giving water to a man in the desert. We followed this with three more wins:- 4-0, 6-1 and 6-0. We still went down though.
As the end of the season approached we were undefeated in nine games till everything came to a head on Thursday 19th May when our final match took us to Goodison Park. Crucially our immediate rivals Coventry and Bristol City who, like us, were on 34 points were playing on that same evening and we’d all worked out the statistics which meant that if either of them won, then we’d stay up as long as we got a draw. However, if they drew, then we’d have to win. We could also lose as long as…etc. Our line-up was Barry Siddall, Mick Docherty, Joe Bolton, Kevin Arnott, Colin Waldron, Jackie Ashurst, Bobby Kerr, Shaun Elliott, Mel Holden, Bob Lee and Gary Rowell with Tony Towers an unused sub. Kerr was the only member of our Cup-winning side to have stayed the course. The crowd was 36,000 and I don’t know how many of our fans were there but it must’ve been around 10,000. Everton came into the match on the back of five draws and only had pride to play for.
I’d managed to get a ticket for the match as well as a lift down there and as we approached Liverpool on the M62 we saw that we were among a convoy of Sunderland fans. I spotted a classmate, Ray, from my first years at the Bede whom I hadn’t seen for years driving alongside us. I’d travelled with the same folks for the West Brom match a few weeks before and seen us pull off a great 3-2 victory. We sat in the middle of a huge bank of our fans along one side of the ground. Sunderland never got into the game much and when Bob Latchford nodded them in front early on, attention started to focus heavily on what was happening in the other game. Bruce Rioch put Everton two-up in the second-half and after that the teams could have walked off and gone home as hardly any of the Sunderland fans were paying them much attention.
In those pre-mobile days all manner of horrible rumours could do the rounds of the stadium and that evening was no exception. At one point in our stand nobody was watching the match while all attention was focused on two blokes with transistors sitting far apart and shouting different scores from the Coventry v Bristol match. A crucial factor was that their match had started about fifteen minutes after ours, which it shouldn’t have, but this was put down at the time to traffic problems. When Everton went two-up the story was that Coventry chairman Jimmy Hill had communicated our score to the players there and for the last part of the game neither side had made any effort to win and they’d passed the ball around among themselves to keep the score level and ensure their mutual survival and our doom. As to the veracity of this claim, I couldn’t stand up in court and say that it was so but Coventry were later ticked off by the F.A. and after that whenever Jimmy Hill showed his face at Roker Park to do ‘Match of the Day’, there were always chants of, “Jimmy Hill’s a wanker!” Not long before his death I was at Craven Cottage watching a Fulham v Sunderland game when during half-time he was spotted standing not far from our end and he received torrents of abuse again. Anyway, back in May 1977 we finished 20th and were relegated as third bottom side, with Stoke and Spurs below us.
It was a long ride back to Sunderland and I went to bed very late. Ironically it was Ascension Day.