In the final part of our build up to the opening game of the season, we remember the first match of the 1970-71 season, where Bristol City were the hosts to a Sunderland side that had finally been relegated from the First Division after spending five years in a constant dogfight.
1970 was the realisation of what many felt over the previous seasons to be inevitable. The 1969-70 season had been the worst in the club’s history at that point – amassing a total of six wins and twenty two defeats out of the tally of forty-two games. The fortunes took their toll on the crowd, too, as an average post-war low of 21,789 at Roker Park bravely turned up to watch their heroes struggle for survival. It may have been down to these frustrations which led to a police warning to a small number of fans who were damaging property on their way back from games. The sixties was a period of struggle for the club – a struggle to retain their place as one of the elites in Division One which had been lost with the relegation in 1958. The relegation in 1970 was the awakening to the fact that the club was being left behind.
So it was with a heavy heart that Sunderland had to make the long trip to Ashton Gate to begin life again in the second flight, and it may have been the heavy heart which gave Sunderland such a terrible time in the opening half of the game. Inaccurate passing was commonplace, simple moves were broken down and concentration was low. A better side than the Bristol City team that day would have punished Sunderland more. As it was, it was City who took the early initiative in the fourteenth minute, an easy chance fell to Gerry Sharpe following poor positioning from Sunderland’s Billy Hughes. The visitors would reply just three minutes later, a tap in for Bobby Kerr which followed from a parried drive from Joe Baker. City took the lead once more just before half time, with a free kick being headed across goal, meeting the head of winger Alan Skirton who nodded it past Jimmy Montgomery.
Sunderland’s balance improved in the second half, although still not perhaps to the level that was expected against what was presumed to be inferior opposition. Ian Porterfield came into his own and ran hard down the wing, linking passes from Bobby Kerr and supplying the ball to Joe Baker up front. The potential come-back started on the 72nd minute, with the aforementioned three linking up in attack, and the ball falling to Baker to tap in following a blocked Kerr shot. Sunderland equalised just two minutes later, Baker again placing the ball home, this time from a header supplied by Billy Hughes.
The visitors looked likely to go on to win at this point, but the fourth goal wouldn’t come for Sunderland but for City. A hard shot from Gerry Gow on the 88th minute which the defence had blocked and cleared only fell to the feet of Sharpe to angle a drive past Montgomery. Bristol City almost made it 5-3 in the last few seconds, Monty managing an acrobatic diving save to prevent an attempt by John Galley.
And so the game finished 4-3 to Bristol City, with some good attacking movement outdone by a poor defensive display of which the only shining light was typically a young Colin Todd. It was also a continual of a dismal away form which had carried on from the previous year and last throughout the season. Hopes of a quick return to the First Division were eroded gradually, and by Easter we looked more like candidates for a successive relegation, eventually managing a very mediocre thirteenth place.
Alan Brown as ever was sticking to his policy of brooding young talent (and in cases such as Colin Todd, selling our best young talent to a fellow second division team in Derby County) over short-term goals. Despite the F.A. Cup win in 1973, the club’s performances as far as the league was concerned would make the seventies the most dismal decade in the club’s history so far, with only one season being played in the top division.