The History Programme: (2) Oxford United face Stokoe’s champions, including Gary Rowell

Click and fiddle for a clearer view
Click and fiddle for a clearer view

For the second of his reflections on matchday programmes, from half a century of watching the Lads, Pete Sixsmith chooses a good day and season to be a supporter: victory over modest opposition in a championship-winning season and the debut of one Gary Rowell …


So we move on
from the halcyon days of 1963 to a memorable season in, what was for Sunderland fans, a memorable decade. 1975-76 saw us promoted to the First Division under Bob Stokoe, with a smattering of the FA Cup winning team and new players who are fondly remembered by red and whites who are in their mid 40s and above.

We ran away with the division that year, ending up as Champions, three points clear of Bristol City and West Bromwich Albion.

Roker was a fortress, with only the two Bristols (pause for tittering here) taking away a point – every other side was beaten on home soil. The away form was not quite as good, although there was a fine win at Boothferry Park in April 76, when Sunderland fans outnumbered Tigers by 3-1.

Stokoe had brought in some new players over the summer. Dave Watson left for Manchester City and we took Jeff Clarke in part exchange. Tall, blond and a wow with the female supporters, he also became an instant favourite across the gender divide with his brave headers and firm tackling.

Tommy Gibb had also arrived and made little impact, but Mel Holden did better. He cost a large fee from Preston North End, scored 11 goals and squeezed Cup hero Vic Halom out of the club. However, he struggled at Premier League level and departed to Blackpool three years later and then on to PEC Zwolle in The Netherlands. He died at the age of just 27 from Motor Neurone Disease.

Mel Holden
Mel Holden*

It was also a year when more homegrown players got into the first team. Joe Bolton was a regular at left back, with Michael Henderson replacing him when he was injured midway through the season. And, in the game I am looking at, an 18-year-old who went on to become a Red and White legend pulled on the famous stripes for the first time – step forward Gary Rowell.

For those old enough to remember, he was the hat trick hero at SJP in 1979, something that has gone down in SAFC folklore. He personified the idea of the Local Boy Done Good.

Born in Seaham, he went to games with his dad and joined the club from Seaham Juniors. His skills were honed in the Northern Intermediate League and the North Midlands League before Bob Stokoe gave him his debut against Oxford United two weeks before Christmas.

Gary Rowell
Gary Rowell*

Oxford were struggling at the wrong end of the table (they went down with 33 points) so it was a good move to blood him. Handed the No 12 shirt, he came on for Mel Holden in a routine 1-0 win, the goal being scored by Ian Porterfield in what turned out to be his final game at Roker for Sunderland.

By this time, I had moved from the Fulwell End to the Clock Stand Paddock. It wasn’t stowed out that day, but those who had avoided an afternoon being dragged around Binns and Joplings were of the opinion that we had a good one here.

They were right. Gary went on to make 266 appearances in a Sunderland shirt, scoring 102 goals and being the second best penalty taker I have seen at the club. He missed one at Orient in 1978, but rattled in every one apart from that. He was almost as good as Jim Baxter from 12 yards.

The programme was a much better effort and had been for a number of years. It cost 10p and actually had some decent reading in it – although the sentence “Allan Clarke, the Leeds striker whose brother Derek is a striker with Oxford is probably their most experienced with 150 League appearances for them” would have sent Monsieur Salut into an apoplexy and would never have got past current programme editor Rob Mason.

Nor would they have allowed the person writing Bobby Kerr’s column to get away with a Brian Clough quote comparing Sunderland to Eutopia. Bobby then went on to give a Coaching Corner on Trapping and Controlling The Ball, which told us that this “is probably one of the most difficult things in football as usually the opposition are there to harass you as the ball is arriving”. And they might even tackle you as well!!!

The opposition were dealt with effectively, with one or two familiar names turning out for them. Mick Tait, who subsequently managed Darlington and Hartlepool and whose son played for Shildon last season, had his individual photo used (complete with barnet and pixels) while other names that might ring a bell included Peter Houseman, Les Taylor (like Tait, born in North Shields) and Nick Lowe – who presumably grew tired of football and buggered off to form Brinsley Schwarz before embarking on a splendid solo career.

Advertisers were thin on the ground, as there were no cigarette companies or breweries taking any space. West One in Holmeside and The Footy Shop in Church Lane appealed to the younger males while the older ones could dream of purchasing a Saab from Les Allen in Toward Road or a Chrysler Avenger from The Autoport in Newcastle Road. The Saab was probably the better bet.

The Travel Club was running a trip to Chelsea the following week: return rail travel and a night in a central London hotel could be had for £12.50, match tickets £1.50 extra. How times have changed. Mind you, we lost, so maybe they don’t change that much.

It was an enjoyable season and we went up with hope in our hearts, convinced that after six seasons in Division Two, we would not only remain with the big boys but become one too. Coventry and Bristol City put an end to that; I will keep an eye out for their result in Division One next season.

After the game it was back home with the No 1 Bohemian Rhapsody (the most overrated pop song ever) blaring out from the car radio and a night watching The Sweeney or Celebrity Squares on the Ferguson. The Balcombe Street siege had just ended and Britain, under the benign premiership of Harold Wilson, was a country at peace with itself.

Harold was helped in his governance of Britain by trade union leaders Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, while HM Opposition had, earlier in the year, dumped Grocer Heath and replaced him with a real life grocer’s daughter in Margaret Thatcher. Many in the 22,501 huddled in Roker that day must have thought the chances of a female prime minister were as likely as foreigners managing and owning the club. How wrong we were.


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Pictures of Mel Holden and Gary Rowell courtesy of the excellent site The Roker End

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3 thoughts on “The History Programme: (2) Oxford United face Stokoe’s champions, including Gary Rowell”

  1. Jeff Clarke: A class act and so were his mum and dad. I was hitching to a game from somewhere in the southern half of England. They stopped and gave me a lift to the ground.
    I can’t remember whether or not they got me a ticket. I think they tried but failed as I remember being in the Fulwell end, from where I could see my mates in the stand. I tried to find hem at the end of the game so I could get a lift home but missed them and if I remember correctly it took me hours to get home.

    • A mate of mine is from South Emsall, just down the road from Jeff’s birthplace, and he said that Jeff’s brother(s?) reckoned he was a softy for turning professional

  2. I might get a “I Saw The Lord Rowell Miss A Penalty” t shirt. It would have to be a very limited edition as there was hardly anyone there when he did it. Orient away (2-2) in 77-78 I believe. Am I right in thinking it was his first ever penalty and he never missed again?

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