Fifty years of Sunderland openers: (5) not sent to Coventry

Jake offers no crest and no ship, just unmistakeable SAFC
Jake offers no crest and no ship, just unmistakeable SAFC

We thought it was all over. It will be now, or once this has been published. Pete Sixsmith had presented one last look back over opening games selected from his half century of Sunderland support, and it had promptly been overlooked. Here, then, is his recollection of one he missed – which was perhaps just as well. See the rest of the series at


And so we arrive at the last of these look-backs on the first game of the season type things. I saw the other four games but not this one. Nothing to do with Coventry and their cheating in 1978 (that’s come back to bite them on the bum) or a lack of money or desire. It’s just that I was on holiday.

That for me is unusual. I rarely organise trips away for the first weekend of a new campaign and if I do, I try to work it round Sunderland’s opening game. But this time, I opted for a week in the Austrian Alps and a miss at Highfield Road. I made the right decision.

The holiday was in a village called Lech, near Innsbruck. It involved a flight from Manchester to Zurich and then a mini bus to the resort, crossing the Swiss –Austrian border like a reverse Von Trapp family. The hotel was excellent with good food, half decent Austrian beer and reminiscent of one of the Christmas tree decorations that we placed on the family tree many years ago.

Mine hosts both spoke perfect English and were happy to let me find the result on their computer. Their reaction to my outburst when I saw we had lost 2-0 and that both goals came in the final six minutes probably reinforced their views of English football fans.

This was a disappointing start to what turned out to be a good season for us. Mick McCarthy had overhauled his squad in the summer, releasing the likes of Phil Babb, Joachim Bjorklund, Jason McAteer, Tommy Smith and Paul Thirlwell after that awful play-off defeat to Crystal Bloody Palace; the Jeff Whitley penalty kick will long go down in Sunderland folklore.

He replaced these experienced but creaking players with some young, and relatively cheap, tyros. In came Dean Whitehead from Oxford United, Liam Lawrence from Mansfield Town, Steven Elliott from Manchester City Reserves, Mark Lynch from Manchester United Reserves and Steven Caldwell from our friends from the north.

The first three made their debuts, linking up with the likes of Mart Poom, Gary Breen, Carl Robinson and Julio Arca as we made yet another attempt to get back in to the Premier League.

It wasn’t a great start against a Coventry side managed by Peter Reid. They were starting their fourth season in the second tier, now renamed the Championship, and had never threatened to climb out of it. Reid had been brought in to inspire the insipid Midlands fans in the same way that he had inspired us nine years earlier, but he was a busted flush by this time and his less than scientific coaching methods no longer worked.

He had a mixture of players to work with. Former Spurs manager Tim Sherwood was on the bench, North Eastener Andy Morrell led the line and future Sunderland loanee Callum Davenport was at centre half.

As we know, Reid had a penchant for big centre forwards: Quinn, Dichio, M’Boma and Flo during his time at Sunderland. Now, at Coventry he turned to another Cameroon international in 6ft tall Patrick Suffo, who had left Sheffield United a couple of years previously after butting a West Brom player in that infamous game where the Blades were reduced to six men in a game that had to be abandoned and led to a feud between Neil Warnock and Gary Megson that made the one between God and Satan look like a playground spat.

He could best be described as lumbering, but he lumbered past our defence in the 84th minute to open the scoring. Eddie Johnson, a former Manchester United junior, wrapped it up in the 90th and that must have left the Sunderland fans in the 16,460 crowd fearing the worst for the season.

It took us a while to get going as McCarthy searched for the right balance in his team. He brought in Neil Collins and his namesake Danny from Dumbarton and Chester respectively to tighten up the defence, he borrowed Simon Johnson from Leeds United in what was probably the least productive loan spell in the clubs history – no Fabio Borini or Danny Welbeck here- and also took Darren Carter from Birmingham City.

He looked a good player, scoring on his debut against Preston North End and creating a positive impression amongst the support. His career never quite took off despite £1m. plus moves to West Brom and Preston and he is currently with Northampton Town – who currently share their Sixfields Stadium with Coventry City. Symmetry or what???

We ended that season as Championship Champions, promotion being all but secured after Marcus Stewart’s goal at Wigan in front of at least 10,000 Sunderland fans and the title being wrapped up in style at Upton Park where goals from Julio and Steven Elliott silenced a cocky cockney crowd and placed real pressure on the head of the Hammers manager, one Alan Pardew. He survived as they scraped through the play offs. Wonder what happened to him?

In some ways it was the most satisfying of the (too) many promotions that I have seen. There was a togetherness about the squad and we did it without spending bundles of money. It was hoped that the likes of Whitehead, Lawrence, Elliott, Ben Alnwick (who had come in for the last few games and had a blinder at West Ham – he has just signed for Peterborough) and Chris Brown would “train on” and establish the club in the Premier League.

We all know what happened the following season…………………

And so, season 50 has begun. The game has changed so much since Colin and I started out in 1964 with our Main Stand Paddock season tickets – not all of it for the better. This season is one where a relegation battle will not be welcomed after last year. The arrival of Rodwell and the departure of Bardsley and Gardner (Mick McCarthy players if ever there were) gives us some optimism, but the money wasted by the previous managers on poor strikers, inadequate defenders and insipid midfielders leaves me looking back to the days of Charlie Hurley, George Herd and Johnnie Crossan with a fondness that I can never have for the current crop.

I am equally sure that those at Roker Park in 1964 who were celebrating their Golden Anniversary of watching The Lads, regarded the three I have mentioned as upstart parvenu’s and said that they were nowhere near as good as Charlie Buchan, George Holley and Frank Cuggy.

As LP Hartley said: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Strange thing to write in a book about fly fishing.

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4 thoughts on “Fifty years of Sunderland openers: (5) not sent to Coventry”

  1. I too was on holiday for this opener Pete. Not in Austria though, the rather flatter terrain of Norfolk was my choice. Managed to watch the game on the box but wished I hadn’t. Bloody Coventry. I managed to cause a bit of a furore on these pages a while back when I said it was the most pointless place ever. All mention of Coventry should be removed from motorway signs, road maps and especially football fixtures and tables. It should be renamed Lesser Birmingham or something similar.

  2. Have also been a Sunderland supporter for 50 years and often think who are the best players you havve seen over the years. Here is my personal best Sunderland XI since 1964




    Not all will agree but these were my favourites

    • I have been a supporter since the late 1940’s – ouch!

      Here is my best [ favourite ] team


      Todd Watson Hurley Bolton

      Bingham Anderson Crossan Tueart

      Phillips Ford

      Todd out of normal position because I can’t leave out Watson or Hurley, and Todd could play anywhere in defence, and be better than anyone else.

  3. Proves the old adage: wait a couple of months before deciding who will be where in the leagues. In addition, this damned transfer window nonsense distorts the whole picture further. Some things were indeed better in that foreign country!

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