Ken Knighton’s Sunderland reign started in dismal fashion 38 years ago this week – with no indication of the excitement to follow.
The former Sheffield Wednesday coach took the reins from caretaker manager Billy Elliott in the summer of 1979, and Sunderland’s fortunes – after going close to promotion the previous campaign – looked to be on the up with plenty of positives in a four-match pre-season tour of Switzerland.
But the return of competitive football, in the shape of the Anglo-Scottish Cup, gave Knighton and assistant Frank Clark a shot across the bows as Sunderland slumped to three defeats out of three in what looked an eminently winnable section.
In hindsight, the embarrassment of a 4-2 defeat to Bury in a shattering opening clash, followed by losses to Bolton and Oldham, perhaps led Sunderland to redouble their efforts when league football returned.
Ultimately, the Rokermen went on to enjoy a positive campaign, clinching promotion back to Division One with a memorable 2-0 win against newly-crowned FA Cup winners West Ham in May, at the end of a brilliant, 14-match unbeaten run.
Back in August, 1979, though, Sunderland looked far from the finished article, seemingly bereft of confidence – amid a transfer chase for Sheffield United’s Argentinian star Alex Sabella which eventually collapsed.
The opening match saw Sunderland come through unscathed in a goalless first half, only to fall behind when Alan Whitehead pounced after keeper Barry Siddall was barged as he tried to collect Gordon Taylor’s free-kick.
Kevin Arnott quickly levelled with a left-foot swerver from Wayne Entwistle’s astute pass, but three goals in a blistering five-minute spell killed off Sunderland.
Taylor swept past right-back Steve Whitworth and laid on a chance for Danny Wilson, whose shot was saved, only to be finished off by the alert David Gregory.
Gregory notched again three minutes later, netting from close range after Whitehead latched on to Wilson’s throw.
Then it was 4-1, Ken Beamish converting a penalty after Jimmy McIlwraith was adjudged to have been felled by Jack Ashurst.
Sunderland, who had 33 free-kicks given against them, pulled one back late on when Entwistle nodded in after Gordon Chisholm headed on Ashurst’s centre.
But it was a dismal start to the cup challenge.
Boss Knighton said: “Both Frank Clark and myself have pride and that was hurt.
“Every time we play, no matter what the game, we are representing Sunderland and that should not be forgotten.”
Clark took command in midweek at Bolton, but Sunderland’s lack of finishing proved their downfall in a 2-0 Burnden Park defeat which killed off any hopes of qualification for the knockout stage.
Sunderland at least produced a better display, with Siddall inspired in goal behind a solid defence, but lively midfielder Arnott was the stand-out performer, creative throughout and eager to have a pop at goal.
Sunderland were the better side in a goalless first half, but Bolton snatched the lead on the hour, Neil Whatmore smashing home a low drive after Alan Gowling got the better of Joe Bolton on the flank.
Jim McDonagh – a future Sunderland keeper – made a world-class stop to keep out Bob Lee’s header as Sunderland pressed for an equaliser, but Bolton sealed victory when Neil McNab fired home, through a crowded goalmouth, after Whatmore’s powerful run.
Clark told the Echo: “We lost a couple of bad goals, but there was a lot to like about the performance.
“They all played as though they meant it and, after Bury, that is a welcome improvement.”
Sadly, Sunderland could not maintain their upward momentum in the final group game, succumbing 2-1 to Oldham at Roker Park – again failing to turn possession into positive play.
Siddall dropped a Simon Stainrod shot at the feet of Jim Steel, who scored an easy opener in just the third minute.
Gary Rowell’s penalty hauled Sunderland level after David Holt brought down Alan Brown, and the home crowd got a boost from the second-half debut display of sub keeper Chris Turner, although he was beaten on 59 minutes by Stainrod’s powerful shot, which proved to be the winner.
Argus moaned in the Echo: “Excuses can be floated out about it ‘not being the real thing’ and ‘not a full strength side’.
“But such excuses point only to a lack of ambition among the players.
“Every game is the real thing to an ambitious player and one would have expected a side weakened by injury and unavailability, which has also had competition for places thrust upon it in a big way, to be jumping at the chance to stake claims.”
Knighton was equally angry, saying: “If nothing else, our three defeats will bring the players down to earth after being installed as favourites to win the Second Division title.
“We’ve got to be professional in everything we do. When a player pulls on a red and white shirt, I expect him to give everything he can.”
Lessons were surely learned which paid off nine months later.
Sunderland (v Bury): Siddall, Whitworth, Bolton, Elliott, Ashurst, Chisholm, Arnott, Gilbert, Entwistle, Brown, Rowell. Att: 3,042
Sunderland (v Bolton): Siddall, Whitworth, Bolton, Elliott, Clarke, Chisholm, Arnott, Lee, Brown, Rowell, Robson. Att: 3,924
Sunderland (v Oldham): Siddall (Turner), Whitworth, Bolton, Elliott, Clarke, Chisholm (Rostron), Lee, Brown, Rowell, Robson. Att: 7,964