SUNDERLAND emphasised their progress in 12 months with victory over West Ham United to sit fourth in the fledgling Division One table.
The corresponding fixture in 1981/82 was also an early-season clash, but West Ham won at a canter to dash the Rokermen’s bright start.
A year on, though, and Sunderland looked a different proposition, building on an opening victory at European Cup holders Aston Villa and a midweek draw against Notts County to sit alongside Swansea and Liverpool and behind only 100 per cent leaders Manchester City.
Personnel wise, it was much the same team which beat the Hammers and even though it took an uncharacteristic mistake by visiting keeper Phil Parkes to settle the spoils, there was no doubting that Sunderland were deserved winners.
Manager Alan Durban said: “I regard the result as terribly significant. We met West Ham on the second Saturday last season and lost.
“If we had lost to West Ham again, all our supporters would have thought we were going the same way as last season.
“The amazing thing is that we had seven of the team in the same fixture last year. They are the same individuals who played last year – but in name only.
“It just shows how much they have matured – we have improved in leaps and bounds .
“If you add our three results to the run we had at the end of last season, we look fairly solid.”
Sunderland went into the match in confident mood, but the Hammers went closest to the vital breakthrough.
Chris Turner was forced to flick a vicious, swerving shot from Paul Goddard one handed over the bar, then, from the resulting corner, Alan Devonshire was only inches too high with a fierce strike.
But Sunderland survived and took the lead with what proved to be the only goal in the 14th minute, with Gary Rowell again proving his alertness in the box.
Shaun Elliott surged forward to find Stan Cummins, who jinked his way inside to set up a shooting chance.
The former Middlesbrough midfielder let fly from outside the box and though Parkes had a good view of the shot, he fumbled and allowed the ball to rebound off his chest and Rowell calmly stepped in to drive the ball just inside the post.
Shaun Elliott and Rob Hindmarch combined impressively at the centre of Sunderland’s defence, nullifying the threat of Goddard and £200,000 new boy Sandy Clark.
The Londoners duly had to look to midfield talisman Devonshire to try to work a way back into the game, but the England star was given no scope to shine by the determination of Barry Venison, who won praise from Durban despite earning a couple of rebukes from referee Chadwick following some no-nonsense tackles.
Durban enthused: “Few sides will beat us through the middle when Elliott and Hindmarch are in that mood, so we told Barry to focus on Devonshire and he gave him no room.”
While the Hammers struggled to create, Sunderland found life equally tough, but the home side did open up another cracking chance, in the very last minute, as Cummins centred from the left, but Rowell miskicked and Ally McCoist also failed to connect cleanly from close range.
Geoff Storey, in the Echo, was full of hope for the season, given Sunderland’s overall performance in the first week of the campaign.
He wrote: “With Ian Atkins continuing to thrive in his new surroundings, his shrewd passing and organisation are certainly a bonus, and Nick Pickering maturing with every game the midfield is ticking over very nicely.
“There is still a long way to go, but the signs are encouraging and with Jimmy Nicholl on his way back, there should be no repeat of the last two seasons’ mad scramble for points.”
* Picture special from the match in the online Football Echo - available on this website from around 6.45pm tonight