The eyes of the football world were on Goodison Park the last time Sunderland travelled to Everton in May.
And it proved a highly controversial night.
Everton had already entertained West Bromwich Albion on Monday, May 16 1977 – and drawn 1-1 – but three days later, unusually on a Thursday, they were scheduled to play at home again as the Football League tried to ensure that no other fixtures would be played the following Saturday, when Liverpool and Manchester United were playing in the FA Cup final.
That was the age when the Cup Final really was a special day.
Just 20,102 had watched the visit of the Baggies (or the Throstles as they were known in the 70s), Everton’s previous home match had attracted 24,000 – but for the visit of Sunderland on Thursday May 19, 1977 there were 36,075 inside the stadium.
The reasons were clear.
An enormous travelling army of Sunderland fans had come down from Wearside to try and cheer their side to a Great Escape.
Sunderland’s goal difference was superior to relegation rivals Bristol City and Coventry, who by a quirk of fate were also playing the same night – so the Wearsiders had either to match the scoreline of their rivals, or hope there was a positive result at Highfield Road.
The visiting Wearsiders generated a wonderful atmosphere at Goodison, but were silenced when Bob Latchford and Bruce Rioch scored goals to give the Toffees a 2-0 victory.
But a positive result at Coventry would still spare them the drop on goal difference – and at half-time Tommy Hutchison’s goal saw Coventry lead.
At this stage, Bristol City were going down.
But here circumstances took over.
A travelling army from Bristol just as big as the Sunderland contingent who flooded Merseyside meant a delayed (Free £25 bet offer) Kick-off at Coventry.
It is unrecorded whether that decision was taken by the local police, or by Coventry chairman Jimmy Hill, mindful of the edge that knowing exactly what had happened at Goodison might give his club.
Hill endured some unpleasant vitriol for what ultimately transpired.
There was further despair for the Bristol fans just seven minutes after the re-start as Hutchison grabbed his second goal.
Bob Latchford then scored for Everton who were 2-0 up and cruising, then, Gerry Gow got a goal back for Bristol City almost immediately.
Bristol City threw everything at Coventry and were rewarded when a long free-kick into the area found Chris Garland who nodded it down and Don Gillies had time to steady himself and fire the ball into the net for the equaliser.
The Highfield Road scoreboard – then a relatively new technoglogy – posted the Everton v Sunderland scoreline of 1-0.
To add to the drama, the crowd watched as the words ‘correction’ lit up. “You could hear a pin drop waiting for the revised score to go up”, recalled one spectator. Eventually, the scoreline was confirmed as Everton 2-0 Sunderland, with five minutes still to play at Coventry.
In scenes later shamefully played out at a World Cup between West Germany and Austria, to ensure Algeria’s elimination, neither side even tried to cross the halfway line as Sunderland were relegated.
Even more cruelly the Goodison tannoy announcer incorrectly announced that Coventry had beaten Bristol City, thus sparing Sunderland from the drop, before quickly adding a correction and silencing the Wearside hordes.
For Sunderland it was a bitter blow. They were relegated barely 12 months after winning Division Two. It was also their first defeat in nine matches and certainly seemed cruel.
But they paid the price for their awful form in the first half of the season when they’d only picked up nine points from their first 23 matches.
Bristol City rejoiced in an amazing escape.
For Everton, one more win against Newcastle the following Tuesday ensured the most average campaign in Goodison history ended with the best balanced record the club had ever posted – Played 42, Points 42. Won 14, Drawn 14, Lost 14. Goals scored 62, Goals conceded 64.
Now that’s spectacularly average.
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