Sunderland’s 10 relegations: The Coventry conundrum (part 2)

Sixer by Jake

John McCormick writes: I was there, at Goodison, that night. For a long time afterwards I felt cheated but I was prepared to accept that Coventry fans would think “tough” – I would have done so in their circumstances. Nevertheless, I always harboured a resentment towards Jimmy Hill and when I heard Coventry fans had clubbed together and paid for a statue, which the man himself was invited to unveil, I couldn’t wish them well.

Pete Sixsmith may offer sympathy. My thoughts are a bit more Karmic: Get rid of the statue, Coventry fans, look what it has brought you.

One of the positives about this (the 10th) relegation (and the 2 before) is that we knew we were down long before the season came to an end. Indeed, the oft maligned and much lamented David Moyes clearly thought that we were down in August and continued picking teams and signing players to make sure that nobody was disappointed with his prediction.

It was different in 1977. We had only suffered two relegations, both on the final day of the season. We had a high profile after the FA Cup win four years earlier and were seen as a “good club” rather than the embarrassment that we are now. And we had a manager who gave youngsters a chance, signed players who would give 100% for Sunderland and who were able to follow his coaching patterns.

Gary Rowell

The young players were the triumvirate of Gary Rowell, Shaun Elliott and Kevin Arnott. Rowell had played a few games in the previous promotion season and had made a few appearances before the February Turning Point, but the other two were regarded as “promising youngsters” – how many of those have we had over the 50+ years that M Salut and me have followed the team?

After a wretched FA Cup defeat at Third Division Wrexham, Adamson took the plunge and put all 3 into the first team for the game at Filbert Street. It ended in a 2-0 win for Leicester and things did not look any better. Although there was a slight improvement in tedious 0-0 draws at home to Stoke and at Highbury, we were still firmly rooted to the bottom of the table.

Jeff Clarke, courtesy:

Then it clicked. Elliott partnered Jeff Clarke at the back and gave us some pace and mobility in the middle. Arnott took the Number 8 shirt from nobody in particular and Rowell replaced Roy Greenwood, who had never recovered from being told to shave his distinctive ginger beard off, as the wide striker alongside Mel Holden and Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee, Bob Lee (to the tune of Hi Ho for all those young bucks reading this).

Bottom in February, by May 7th we were sixteenth and points clear of Tottenham, Stoke, Coventry, Bristol City, West Ham and Norwich. We needed one win from the final two games of the season to guarantee staying up and, we could even retain our First Division place if we lost both games and other results fell for us.

So it was that we set off for East Anglia and Carrow Road aboard a Sunderland City Council Experiment In Leisure mini bus that had been hired free of charge by one of the group for “outdoor activities.” Weighed down with cans of Double Maxim, it trundled across the A17/A47 corridor, past remote pubs selling Bateman’s Good Honest Ales before arriving in Norwich at opening time.

When one thinks of Norfolk’s capital now, the names of Delia Smith, Stephen Fry and Alan Partridge spring to mind.

In 1977, it was the home of Sale of the Century and Nicholas Parsons and a cheesy organist called Peter Fenn, so quips and jokes were made at Nicholas’s expense. We may even have sung the “I can’t read I can’t write but I can ride a tractor” song.

More beer was taken as we met up with Sixsmith minimus, taking time off from his studies at Hull and bringing with him some fine fellows who would prove their worth later that evening.

No tickets or seats in 1977. Sunderland supporters were directed towards the corner of the Barclay End and were shoehorned into that. Nobody at City had expected the volume of support that we brought and the turnstiles were totally inadequate. The one that our group, which now included M Salut, climbed over was staffed by a 16 year old whose facial expression bore a remarkable resemblance to that of a citizen of York in the 10th Century as Nogbab the Bad swept down Fossgate leading his band of Viking chums on a stag night.

The game was goalless at half time and things went downhill in the second half as Viv Busby (jeered for having a girl’s name and for having played for the Mags) scored to set the Canaries singing and put them 2 up. Adamson, showing that he knew how to use his single substitute (David Moyes take note) by bringing on Bobby Kerr for Tony Towers and The Little General responded in the best way imaginable by setting up Gary Rowell with six minutes left. Then, he set Mick Docherty away and his cross was headed goalwards by Mel Holden. It broke to Kerr who rammed it home to send the 8,000 Red and Whites in a packed Carrow Road, wild. M Salut and his trusty correspondent hugged each other and the general mood was positive.

On the way home we stopped in Lincoln to imbibe some Good Honest Ale and watch Match of the Day. Even in those days there were Manchester United fans all over and a group came into the room where we were watching the game and looked threatening. One of Sixsmith Minimus’s comrades stood up to reveal a man who worked as a pit prop in his college breaks and who often appeared as the entire Featherstone Rovers front row. The Lincoln branch of Cowards for United slunk out.

When we returned, I had a phone call from the friend who had organised the “outdoor pursuits” weekend to tell me that he was in trouble. The car parked behind us belonged to the Deputy Director of Education for Sunderland who was unaware of any “outdoor pursuits” taking place in East Anglia other than the Norwich v Sunderland game. Said friend was reprimanded and banned from hiring mini buses for a year.

Five days later, we took to the roads again, this time for Goodison Park. Spurs and Stoke had gone by now and the final relegation spot was between us, Coventry and Bristol City – and those two met, on the same evening, at Highfield Road. The only way we could go down was if we lost and those two drew. Another season in the top flight beckoned and Rowell, Arnott and Elliott would go on to become full England internationals and we would go on to conquer the whole wide world.

I travelled with Bill Maughan, the Head of French at Ferryhill, a lovely man, very soft spoken, a great teacher and a good friend. We taught in adjacent classrooms so he had to put up with my eruptions when some poor child confused Raich Carter with Dave Halliday in a History lesson, We also took Dave Whitfield, a Sixth Former with us and set off straight after work.

Sixsmith Minor met us in Liverpool and we all squeezed into the Park Lane End. There was a feeling that all we had to do was turn up as Everton had less than bugger all to play for so a draw was the least we expected. The players may well have felt the same as we were awful all night.

Bob Latchford and Bruce Rioch put The Toffees ahead and we never looked like scoring. But the news from Highfield Road was good. Coventry led 1-0 at half time, although there had been a 15 minute delay in the kick off due to “crowd congestion.”
Coventry went 2 up before Bristol fought back with two of their own and, had that been the case, we would have cursed our luck, congratulated both sides on stopping up and that would have been the end of it.

But Coventry had an electronic scoreboard and Chairman Jimmy Hill flashed the Sunderland score up so that the crowd and the players could see that Sunderland had lost. There was still ten minutes to play and what had been a fiercely contested encounter now became something more akin to an Over 80’s Croquet game as both sides passed the ball to each other knowing that they were safe.

Meanwhile, back at Goodison, the atmosphere of gloom that had descended on the Park End was lifted as the stadium announcer stated that Coventry had won and that Bristol had gone down sparking riotous celebrations amongst the 10,000 Sunderland supporters present. But men with transistor radios pressed to their ears quelled the celebrations by telling us that “the F****** are playing passy to one another” and it was they who confirmed the result.

The trip home was an awful one and hardly a word was spoken. As we approached Leeming Bar, Bill turned to me and said “that is an absolute f****** disgrace”, the only time I heard him swear in all the years I knew him. He left teaching a few years later to become an accountant and continued driving strange Eastern European cars – at this time he had a Wartburg Knight from the German Democratic Republic. I had a Beetle from the Federal Republic.

It was Jimmy Hill who flashed the message up on the screen and for this blatant piece of manipulation he was slapped on the wrist by the FA. Sunderland supporters never forgave him and made it clear what they thought of him in 2008 when he was spotted in The Riverside Stand at Craven Cottage and was given a fearful time before he was led away by the police for his own safety.

As for Coventry, they have experienced a miserable 21st Century and now find themselves in the same league as Accrington Stanley, Crawley Town and Forest Green Rovers. My animosity toward their support has changed to sympathy as they have been thoroughly stitched up by their owners, a hedge fund called Sisu, so there will be no bile directed at them forty years later; what is done is done and relegation number 3 was a bummer.

10 thoughts on “Sunderland’s 10 relegations: The Coventry conundrum (part 2)”

  1. Final match of 1996/97 anyone? Coventry playing at Spurs, Coventry 200 miles nearer London….kick-off delayed. Sunderland playing at Sehurst, the worst shithole to get to in South London.

    Coventry kick-off delayed due to traffic delays on M6, there’s a surprise, despite FA and Premier League rules about final day kick-offs.

    Of course, Sunderland fans had arrived on time due to the spring sale of the excess stock of jet packs at Binns.

    What excuse are you lot going to have when HS2 arrives? Then again, if the same final day scenario is repeated, God forbid you’re playing at Cardiff and you can blame not understanding the road signs.

    Earlier this season, BBC Radio Coventry’s build up to your away derby against Walsall was hilariously hysterical that you were taking over 1200 fans on the epic 22 mile journey. I hope your mam stocked you up on Kendal mint cake.

  2. The point about Hill was that he was preachy and pedantic,
    he was continually lauded as a football guru who stood up for sporting values. He was the exact opposite on that fatal night, he was a hypocrite.

  3. I have posted on Facebook with an article from the Bristol Evening Post which questions the players commitment in the later stages of the game.
    What sticks is that there was an enquiry, of sorts, where Coventry and Jimmy Hill got off.
    They also had a “delayed game” later on the last day of the season, plus they they had Speedie.
    Having said that, I quite like the Ricoh, and saw a great Springsteen gig there

    • When I was in the Heart of England branch a lot of the members lived in Coventry and a couple had spoken to ex Coventry City players who confirmed the story. We might have played poorly all season but so had the two Cities, the difference being of course that they were in a position to do each other a favour.

  4. Yours and other Sunderland fans obsession with blaming your relegation on the Coventry vs Bristol match being delayed, rather than your disastrous form over the season, is almost beyond belief, and has over the years becomes a pettiness turned to the worse kind of fan behaviour. The behaviour of your fans towards JH on his illness and death has been beyond contempt.

    • Ah there goes someone who doesn’t know the pleasure you can derive from holding a grudge for 40 years.

      I believe I was in the Birds Nest at Houghton that night watching Heatwave and the news of the goings on at Highfield Road reached us just as we were being urged to “keep on dancin’, keep on dancin'”.

    • Dear worsethanmoaningarsenalfans

      What’s your opinion of Mr. Igwe, whom I believe once represented Sisu on the Coventry Board, and, indeed, the other members of Sisu’s board?

    • Bristol would have thumped Coventry they had them on the rack until two ex Leeds players colluded to stop competing, the form of Bristol and Coventry was just as bad but we did not cheat.

    • All three teams were crap all season but this was blatant cheating instigated by you know who .

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