COLIN Waldron was the unlikely hero as Sunderland finally climbed out of the First Division drop zone they’d first entered on September 11.
The on-loan Manchester United defender, making just his third appearance for the Rokermen, slammed home the only goal against title-chasing Ipswich in the 70th minute to ensure a fifth successive home victory.
The season was beyond bleak until a run of wins over Bristol City, Middlesbrough, West Brom and West Ham suddenly revived Sunderland’s fortunes, and Waldron’s effort made it 18 goals scored and none conceded in the five straight victories.
The Wearsiders, though, were still deep in trouble, only out of the bottom three on goal difference – above Bristol City, Derby and West Ham who were also on 21 points. Crucially, Sunderland had played three games more than all of their rivals.
Bobby Robson’s Ipswich missed John Wark, Mick Mills and Trevor Whymark, but still managed to show why they were challenging Liverpool hard at the top of the table.
Manager Jimmy Adamson was delighted with the efforts of his young side, telling the Echo: “They showed a lot of character in what was the hardest game they have had since I came here.
“That win over a team like Ipswich meant more to me than the big scores in recent games. Ipswich are a good side and take some breaking down.”
Ipswich chief Robson was generous in his praise of Sunderland, adding: “I hope they stay up. If they play all their games as hard as this, they must have a great chance.”
Ipswich were up for the game from the off, with Allan Hunter and Dale Roberts handing out a lot of punishment to home forwards Bob Lee and Mel Holden, while future Sunderland striker Keith Bertschin revelled in an unusual role of midfield destroyer.
The midfield industry of Gary Rowell, Kevin Arnott, Bobby Kerr and Shaun Elliott gave Sunderland a measure of control, though, with Rowell, Holden and Lee all going close to making a first-half breakthrough.
Barry Siddall was forced to make three outstanding saves to deny George Burley, Eric Gates and Roger Osborne as Ipswich pressed for the opener on the restart, but Sunderland grabbed the vital goal.
Joe Bolton made a fine run down the left before hammering in a 20-yard shot which was deflected for a corner. Kerr’s first flag-kick was turned behind by Roberts, but his second got into the middle and was half-cleared to the edge of the box, but it fell perfectly for Waldron and the centre-half powered a right-foot drive through the crowded goalmouth and just inside helpless keeper Paul Cooper’s left-hand post.
Ipswich were sparked into life by the setback, and Sunderland needed Jackie Ashurst to be at his best to thwart them in the closing stages. Kevin Beattie, only fit enough to be named as sub, went closest to levelling, when he sent a fierce header just over the bar from a corner.
But Sunderland held firm and claimed the two crucial points.
Waldron’s impact, particularly in defence, saw Sunderland move to extend his initial month’s loan, but the defender was keen to seek talks with United skipper Martin Buchan, who was in charge of the players’ pool ahead of the Old Trafford’s forthcoming FA Cup semi-final, before making any decision.