When Albert Stubbins saved the broken hearts club band

Fears of the drop are deep-seated in the footballing heartland that time forgot
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The Independent Football

Back in North-eastern territory after a trip to Manchester, a flick of the car radio dial found a trailer of doom. "Judgement Day is coming," a bass voice boomed. "Follow Survival Sunday on Real Radio. It's one of the most important days the North-east has ever seen." There was no mention of Hadrian's construction of the text-book defensive wall (although to be fair that did take more than a single day), nor of the days when a chap by the name of Hitler sent his Luftwaffe to bombard the banks of the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees.

It was not always thus up here in the football land that time forgot. Back in April 1970 there was no Real Radio, Get Real Radio or local radio football coverage of any description the night Sunderland played Liverpool with their status in the (olde) First Division on the line.

I can't quite remember how I heard the news of the 1-0 defeat, which came courtesy of an 84th-minute Chris Lawler tap-in at the Fulwell End at dear old Roker Park. I think it was when my father got back and put the match programme next to my pillow. I was eight at the time and he refused to take me with him to a game the night before a school day. I remember having a bawling fit because he wouldn't take me, and another when I knew my beloved red-and-whites would be playing in Division Two.

Seven years later, we were at Goodison Park together – my mother too – on the night that a 2-0 defeat against Everton and some questionable goings-on at Highfield Road conspired to send Sunderland into the Second Division again. "We" would have been safe if there had been any result other than a draw in the match between Coventry City and Bristol City. Their kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes, because of supposed crowd congestion, and they were tied at 2-2 when news of Sunderland's defeat was announced over the public address system. The two Cities, realising they were both in a safe position, played keep-ball thereafter.

The Football League sent Coventry a letter reprimanding them for their actions. They escaped without punishment, and Coventry's chairman of the time still remains The Unforgiven on Wearside. That much was clear when Jimmy Hill stepped on to the pitch in front of Sunderland fans at Craven Cottage last October, on the day that Johnny Haynes' statue was unveiled. There were angry scenes that required police intervention.

There was a time when the cover of the Sunderland programme proudly carried the strap-line "The only club which has never played outside the First Division". It disappeared after relegation No 1 in 1958. No 2 was 1970, No 3 1977. Another today would make it 10 in all. It would be a fourth in 12 years, a third in six seasons. For fans, it has come to be part of the territory.

For Newcastle United supporters, after the highs of the Keegan and Robson years, the prospect of a drop to the second tier seems too much to contemplate. The Magpies have not been to the brink of relegation since 1992, when they went to Leicester on the final day of the season needing a victory to make sure of safety in the old Second Division. They won 2-1, although results elsewhere would have saved them in any case.

It was not the first time the mighty Magpies had been a game away from the third flight. On the ultimate day of the 1937-38 season they travelled to Luton needing a victory to ensure their Second Division status. Albert Stubbins, Wallsend lad, made his debut for Newcastle that day. He went on to become such a goalscoring legend with Liverpool that The Beatles put his smiling face in between those of Marlene Dietrich and Lewis Carroll on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Albert died in 2002 but I had the pleasure of visiting this genial soul in the week of Newcastle's last day trip to Leicester in 1992. He showed me a telegram he had received from Paul McCartney. "Well done, Albert, for all those glorious years in football," it read. "Long may you bob and weave."

At 72, Albert was still greatly tickled. He was 18 when he played at Luton that day. "The mood on Tyneside was very gloomy," he recalled. "I remember the newspaper placards at the Central Station: 'Do or die for United.' Everyone seemed to be fearful, anticipating the worst. We lost 4-1 and I remember the disappointment when we got off the pitch. Then someone came in the dressing room and told us we were safe."

Stubbins and his team-mates had been saved by Barnsley's failure to beat Nottingham Forest. They survived by one-tenth of a goal. It could possibly come down to the fine margins of goal difference again today – Judgement Day not just for Sunderland and Newcastle but for Middlesbrough and Hull City too.