Written by Brian Leng
While the Sunderland directors set about the task of finding a new manager, Billy Elliott was put in charge of first team affairs although his short tenure of the Roker Park hot-seat could hardly be described as successful. His record of three draws and four defeats in his seven games in charge had seen the club drop into the lower reaches of Division Two and whereas promotion had been the club’s early season target, survival had suddenly become the priority. One of those defeats had come in a thrilling encounter against Carlisle United at Brunton Park when Sunderland lost by the odd goal in seven but perhaps more significantly, the game had seen Elliott take the decision to move Dave Watson to the centre of the Sunderland defence. It was a move that would transform Watson’s career in the most dramatic fashion imaginable and within eighteen months he was picked to play for England and begin an international career that would see him capped no fewer than 65 times for his country.
Elliott later revealed that he had tracked Watson for some time before finally persuading Alan Brown of the Nottingham-born youngster’s potential:
“I saw Dave play for Rotherham five or six times and it was soon pretty clear to me that he had all the attributes to develop into an exceptional player. Rotherham were actually using him as a central defender and whilst he did look dangerous when he moved up the park to lend his weight to the attack for set pieces and such like, there was no doubt in my mind that centre-half was going to be his best position. At the time we were desperately short of quality strikers at Roker and I fully understood why Brownie decided to play Dave up front but as soon as the opportunity arose, I moved him back to a defensive role. In fairness to Dave, he’d faired pretty well in the striker’s role but as a defender he was a different class and it came as no surprise to me when he went on to win all those caps for England.”
Billy Elliott’s final game in charge was a 1-0 defeat at Bristol City that slip closer to the Third Division trap-door however a few days later, on 30th November the club announced that Blackpool boss Bob Stokoe had agreed to take over as manager. As a player Stokoe had spent the best part of his career with Newcastle United where he had come through the ranks to establish himself as one of the best central defenders in the English game.
Stokoe had begun his managerial career in 1961 when he took over as player-manager at Bury after which there followed spells at Charlton, Rochdale and Carlisle before he joined First Division Blackpool in December 1970. At Bloomfield Road he inherited a struggling team and whilst he was unable to save the Seasiders from relegation at the end of his first season in charge he did manage to lead his team to glory in the Anglo-Italian trophy a few months later. While his reputation as a manager had grown steadily in the lower leagues, the approach from Sunderland came as a complete surprise as Stokoe revealed when interviewed in 1998.
“It all began with a phone call from one of the Sunderland directors,” Stokoe recalled, “I suppose you could describe it as an unofficial approach and few days later a secret meeting took place late one night in the car park of the Sunderland Greyhound Stadium of all places. It was real ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff with Sunderland chairman Keith Collings, two of his directors and I sitting huddled in his car discussing terms. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the meeting was that I had pretty much agreed to take over the vacant manager’s job at Roker Park and I then faced the job of driving back to Lancashire to break the news to the Blackpool board. They were none too pleased when I broke the news to them the following morning but by then my mind was firmly made up because it had always been my dream to return to the North East as a manager and I couldn’t wait to get started on the job in hand.”
Stokoe immediately endeared himself to Sunderland’s long-suffering fans by changing the team’s white shorts back to their traditional black although his main priority when he took over at Roker was to halt the team’s alarming slide towards the third tier of English football. Whilst his first game in charge ended in a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Burnley, a week later his team came from behind when late goals from Billy Hughes and Bobby Kerr helped clinch a vital 3-2 victory at Portsmouth. Results improved dramatically after that game and when Sunderland headed down to Notts County for their third round F.A. Cup tie, the threat of relegation had pretty much evaporated.
Stokoe’s arrival had certainly rekindled interest among Sunderland fans and large following headed down to Nottingham for the tie including a certain Gary Rowell who risked the wrath of the club after skipping a youth team game on the morning of the match just to see the lads in action.
As Gary explains: “From being a youngster I’d always been Sunderland daft and loved travelling to away matches so, on the morning of the game I rang our youth team coach Ray Yeoman and told him I was ill bed with the flu. Ray was very understanding and told me to stay in bed and get myself pulled together for the following week. To be honest I did feel a bit guilty, but once I jumped into my mate’s dad’s van and we were heading down the motorway to Nottingham all I could think about was the game ahead. On the way down we pulled into the motorway services for a bite to eat and I was just finishing my bacon sarnie when who should walk in but Bob Stokoe and the entire Sunderland team. I couldn’t believe it and immediately dove under the table and pulled my scarf up over my face before making a hasty move for the exit doors with my mates shielding me as we left the building. I remember passing Billy Elliott and thinking: ‘God, I’ll be for it on Monday morning if he spots me!’ Mind you, that wasn’t the end of our problems that day because on the way home we broke down and ended up having to wait for over two hours until help arrived – all part of the fun of following Sunderland away!”
Whilst the team’s form had improved dramatically under Bob Stokoe they were made to fight all the way in a dour encounter at Meadow Lane and could easily have fallen at the first hurdle had it not been for an incredible second-half save by Jim Montgomery. Stokoe made two changes from the team that had recorded a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Brighton at Roker Park the previous week. John Tones took the place of David Young who was ineligible due to the fourteen-day signing rule and Jackie Ashurst was brought into the side as an additional midfielder in place of John Lathan .
Sunderland were well represented in a crowd of just over 15,000 with over 2,000 fans having made the journey south from Wearside on a bitterly cold day. County began the game at a terrific pace with Scottish midfielder Don Masson in outstanding form and at times Sunderland’s defence was struggling desperately to keep the home side at bay. The first half was developing into a one-sided affair with Masson twice shooting wide from good positions and it came as no surprise when they took the lead on the half hour. Again it was Masson who did the spade-work when he set up a chance for Randall and when his shot was blocked the ball fell invitingly for Les Bradd who was left with simplest of tasks to drive the ball home from close range. The goal was no more than the home side deserved and they almost doubled their advantage when Bradd came storming into the box from the right wing to fire in a terrific shot which looked to be a goal all the way until it was deflected wide. When the half-time whistle arrived, it came as a mighty relief to the die-hard Sunderland fans who’d made the journey down to Nottingham and any thoughts of the next round let alone Wembley must have seemed a million miles away.
However, as so often happens, the half-time break allowed Sunderland to re-group and in the second period the pendulum gradually began to swing in favour of the visitors. The first to threaten the County goal was Ian Porterfield who brought a terrific save from the Brown with a stinging left-foot drive and then Tueart had the home ‘keeper scambling along his line to palm away another goal-bound shot. Soon afterwards Sunderland looked to have grabbed an equaliser when Tueart sent a finely judged header which was dropping into the net until Brown dove to his left to fingertip the ball away. Sunderland were now in total control but as they pressed forward in search of the equaliser they were caught on the break when Carter beat Malone to set up a great chance for Nixon only for the County winger to head wide from a great position.
With twenty minutes remaining Bob Stokoe took the decision to move Dave Watson up front and it was soon to prove a masterstroke. With only eleven minutes remaining the Sunderland defender rose to beat Needham and power home a terrific header from a Dennis Tueart cross to take the tie to a replay. Moments earlier however, County had come within a whisker of adding to their advantage and again it was Les Bradd who powered a header goalwards only for Jim Montgomery to produce an acrobatic save of breath-taking quality to deny the County striker. Had County scored then it’s almost certain the game would have been beyond Sunderland’s reach and the incredible events that were about to unfold in the weeks and months ahead simply wouldn’t have happened.
After the match Bob Stokoe was full of praise for his team’s spirited second-half comeback whilst also acknowledging that game could have easily been over by the break. “On the two halves it could not have been a fairer result,” said the Sunderland boss, “They played the better type of cup-tie football in the first half and we were fortunate to be only a goal down at half-time. But we sorted a few things out during the interval and moving Dave Watson forward certainly made a big difference. We left ourselves stretched at the back but we had to go for it and could easily have won it right at the death when their ‘keeper denied Billy Hughes with an outstanding save. It was a tough afternoon but I thought we came through it brilliantly and I can’t praise our supporters enough, they gave us tremendous backing from start to finish.”
That night the Footy Echo carried the headline: ‘Watson goal keeps Roker men in Cup’ but alongside came the first sign that Bob Stokoe was about to ring the changes at Roker with the announcement that John Lathan, Ritchie Pitt, Keith Coleman, Derek Forster and Brian Chambers had been placed on the transfer list.
“We are circularising clubs advising them that we will consider offers.” Stokoe explained, “We are not naming any figure and if at the time there have been no reasonable offers, we will consider letting them go on loan to ant club which needs help. These are all young players with first team experience and in the present situation things have come to a bit of a standstill for them. This is an opportunity for them either to play well enough to get back into the team or to attract interested clubs. It may seem tough on these lads but we must be realistic. We’ve got players coming into the club and there must be an outlet too.”
Pitt was perhaps the most surprising of all given that he had considerable experience playing in the first team and had always been highly rated by Stokoe’s predecessor Alan Brown. The news came as something of a bombshell to the former England youth international and even to this day he is at a loss as to why Stokoe took the decision to offload him so quickly.
“I never did find out why Bob Stokoe took such an instant dislike to me but it was obvious from day one that I wasn’t going to figure in his plans. To be honest, it was a major blow to my confidence but when Arsenal manager Bertie Mee got in touch and offered me the chance of moving to Highbury on loan it occurred to me that perhaps I wasn’t that bad a player after all. Arsenal were one of the leading clubs at the time having clinched the League and Cup double two years earlier and apart from the attraction of playing in the First Division again, I was also looking at the possibility of almost doubling my wages if the move became permanent. Prior to that I had the opportunity to join Lincoln City who at the time were managed by future England boss Graham Taylor and I had actually met him at the motorway services at Washington to discuss terms. The meeting took place in the self-service restaurant of all places and no sooner had we started our negotiations than two bus loads of pensioners descended on the place. Suddenly, the restaurant was packed and at one point an old lady came over and interrupted our discussions to ask if she could borrow the salt! Unbelievable maybe, but that’s the way it was in those days.”
Bob Stokoe immediately declared his intention of going for goals by starting the game with Dave Watson leading the attack while his role in the centre of Sunderland’s defence was taken by Mick McGiven who was brought into the side in place of Jackie Ashurst. Other than that it was the same Sunderland team that had forced a replay at Meadow Lane a few days earlier. Sunderland began the game in the ascendancy and roared on by Roker Park’s biggest crowd in years, they put the visitors goal under constant pressure from the off. Kerr and Hughes both created early openings but there a few anxious moments soon afterwards when Horswill and Bolton went down injured after a challenge on Nixon and both players needed lengthy treatment before being allowed to continue.
Sunderland continued to create the better openings and Watson and Tueart were both off target from promising positions. Hughes was them denied by Brown after a brilliant run into the box but soon afterwards County went close when Masson fired a free-kick just over the bar. The visitors came closer still on the half hour when they won their first corner of the game and when Malone headed clear, the ball was returned into the box for Nixon to shoot narrowly wide. As the half drew to a close it was County who were asking all the questions and the Sunderland defence came under intense pressure when shots from Bradd, Randall and Carter were charged down in front of goal before Mann headed narrowly wide.
Sunderland had certainly enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the opening half but County were always a threat on the break and they were the first to threaten in the second period when Nixon broke through only to be denied by a diving save from Montgomery. The action soon transferred to the other end of the park however and on fifty four minutes the deadlock was finally broken. The move began when Porterfield won the ball in midfield and played it down the left where Kerr allowed it to run through to Watson. There seemed to be little on but the Sunderland striker took on the County defence on his own, racing to the edge of the box before driving home a right-foot shot which flew into the net just inside the far post.
Buoyed by their success, Stokoe’s men surged forward in search of the second goal that would effectively make the game safe and a period of sustained attacking play, Malone, Tueart, McGiven and Hughes all went close. However, the home side were leaving themselves stretched at the back and with seven minutes remaining Stokoe took the decision to move Watson back into the centre of defence. County were still posing a serious threat to the Sunderland goal but with only seconds of normal time remaining Kerr broke clear and played the ball through the middle where Tueart brushed aside Needham to beat Brown from close range to make the game safe. Hundreds of fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate the goal and it was some minutes before order was restored.
Bob Stokoe was delighted with his team’s performance and the tremendous atmosphere created by the Roker crowd. “It was a great night for the lads,” he said after the game, “and also for our magnificent supporters who really turned up in their numbers tonight and gave us terrific support from start to finish.”