SUNDERLAND Harriers staved off the threat of relegation with a superb win in the final North East Harrier League First Division match at Wrekenton on Saturday.
The Wearsiders, who have never been out of the First Division since the league was split into divisions nearly 20 years ago, overcame a mighty challenge to secure their status.
They went into the six-mile handicap cross country race having to claw back five points on Tynedale, who were one place above the city club in third off the bottom of the table.
The 22-man Sunderland team ran their socks off to win the team race by the skin of their teeth by just one point from Durham City Harriers.
The cathedral club came up on the rails to steal the title from Morpeth Harriers, who had a disaster, finishing last of the 10 competing club’s.
But the action at the bottom of the table was just as intense as Sunderland, who have never been in this position before, had to dig deep to ensure their survival.
Brian Rushworth, the Harriers’ most renowned cross country runner, with 10 record-breaking wins in the North East Cross Country Championships, added himself to the fray, despite being on the injured list and having not raced for nine months.
Now aged 51 and his best years well behind him, he can still be relied upon to stir things up at the front of the field, even though he has knee and calf problems that have greatly interfered with his training.
Running from the slow pack, he had a 30-metre lead on the opening lap, but his fitness caught up with him on the second and third laps.
He slipped back to a gallant final third (34.12), to set the Harriers’ up for their remarkable win.
Next home for the royal blue vests was Craig Isherwood (left), who had just come off a night shift to lend the club a hand in their relegation fight. He stormed into fifth from the medium pack (actual time – 31.57) and was followed by Matthew Fearn in 17th (35.43).
Then came fast pack man Mark Hood in 29th (30.56), Noel Hitchcock 37th (33.47) and sixth and last counter was veteran Tim Field, who pegged back a couple of runners in the home straight to claim 73rd (34.27) and a glorious team victory.
Club secretary Michael Hill said: “I can’t praise the lads enough.
“ While many thought we had an impossible task, I knew once I saw the team assembled we could do it.
“And they did not let me and the club down.’’
Sunderland Strollers are back in the Second Division after finishing bottom of the table.
They finished seventh in the match with Liam Taylor their first runner to finish in 22nd.
The fastest runner on the course was fast pack man Dan Jenkin of Durham, who charged through to seventh from the fast pack (29.44).
Final table: Durham 13pts, Tyne Bridge 15, Morpeth 18, Wallsend 30, South Shields 37, Low Fell 41 Gateshead 41, Sunderland Harriers 42, Tynedale 43, Sunderland Strollers 50.
Houghton Harriers are relegated to Division Three after finishing bottom of Division Two.
Sunderland Strollers won the women’s match to climb to fourth in the First Division.
Their counters were Lynn Cullen in eighth, Kay Snowball ninth and Jenna Maynard 16th. The race winner was Durham City Harrier Kim Simpson.
Houghton Harrier Will Bellamy showed a good turn of speed to win the under-11s race in a sprint finish. Clubmate Anna Piggford was second girl.
Sunderland Harriers provided the second, third and fourth finishers in the under-17 men’s race to win the team race. They were respectively Mark Smith, Aaron Mason and Sam Harris.