Manchester United Memories From Mark Metcalf - Part 1

Sammy McIlroy in action for Manchester United. Not well liked by Mark in today's article.

Those amongst you clever enough to be Roker Report devotees couldn't possibly have missed this guest piece last week from acclaimed football historian and author Mark Metcalf. Before he is either of those things, however, he is a Sunderland AFC fan, just like the rest of us.

I must admit that one of my own personal great hopes for Roker Report is that we provide a platform to make information about our club's brilliant past as accessible as it possibly can be. The way modern football not only seeks to dismiss the pre-Premier League days but, at time, actively try and rewrite the history books entirely is a genuine irritant of mine. So when Mark offered us the chance to publish a piece recounting his memories of Sunderland and Manchester United clashes spanning 5 decades, there was no way in hell I was passing it up.

We all remember the more recent contests between the clubs, but what lets delve a little deeper. So, once again, we hand you over to Mark for part 1 of his Manchester United memories.

If you’re like me then when the fixtures are announced I always look to see who we play first, and then as long as we’re in the same league Newcastle and Manchester United. 
 
Whilst the games against ‘the Magpie’s’ have provided me with equal amounts of pleasure and pain over the last 40 years they have also, in my view, rarely touched the footballing heights of some of the games I’ve seen between ‘the lads’ and ‘the Red Devils’ during the same period. And I suspect those lucky enough to have watched Sunderland during this period would have to agree even if our record especially away from home hasn’t exactly been a complete triumph, to put it mildly.
 
The first time I saw a game with Man Utd was in September 1967, a 1-1 draw at Roker Park.  Not yet eight I vaguely recall that there were two goals at the start.  [Brian Kidd scored in the 4th and Colin Suggett in the 5th according to the record books] Manchester United I know were the reigning league champions and had a star studded line-up featuring Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and, of course, George Best. What I do remember was the noise and being stuck in the boys’ pen at the front of the absolutely immense Roker End packed with over 20,000 standing spectators.
 
The 51,257 that turned out at Roker Park was 11,000 less than the numbers, of which I was one, at Old Trafford, for the return fixture where home fans knew that they had to win and hope Newcastle United beat Manchester City at St James’s Park for them to retain the title. Sunderland were expected to be like lambs to the slaughter, it didn’t turn out like that; they took Manchester United apart with Suggett and George Mulhall scoring in a 2-1 victory.
 
Mulhall I know from speaking to him last year rates that one of his best goals of his career stating:-  “We played exceptionally well; it was one of the finest Sunderland games that I played in during my time there. We had played some good games in the 2nd division and also in the FA Cup but the quality of opposition on that day – Best, Charlton, Crerand, marvellous players. I scored the winner with a header; I got up and headed it back across the goal right into the corner. The players used to call me Chandelier for my heading abilities, or at least some of them, as well as because they used to say I would jump to get out of the way for high tackles, but that was a really good header that one”.
 
Unlike in 1967-68 I vividly recall the following season’s match at Roker Park, mainly because my dad bought seat tickets in the Main Stand close to the Roker End where I watched mesmerised as the crowd surged first one way and then the next. It looked, and was, slightly dangerous as my dad was to find out many years later during another Man Utd match of which more later, but most people seemed to find it fairly exciting and the mood was light hearted fuelled no doubt by a few pints beforehand.
 
I can also recall walking to the ground behind a bunch of away fans, one of whom was wearing a denim Wrangler Jacket that had on the back a picture of George Best with ‘Bestie’ spelt out in metal studs.
 
What I remember about that game was one player, my dad’s favourite, Charlie Hurley and in particular the way he hung back in his own half and waited for Alex Stepney to kick the ball before he advanced forward to head the ball back like a rocket towards the United goal with the Sunderland forwards haring towards it. Now we are not talking the soft ball of today, so to meet the ball and head it so far was I felt remarkable, I still do.  Good player Hurley. He actually scored that day, an 88th minute equaliser; sadly it was for Manchester United after he couldn’t get out of the way of a Nobby Stiles shot which rocketed off his head and past Jimmy Montgomery.  In some ways this just made me like him even more.
 
Hurley wasn’t around when we next played Manchester United the following year, relegation bound Sunderland grabbed another 1-1 draw at Roker Park at Xmas, Joe Baker scoring but I can’t even remember if I was at the match or not.
 
However with Manchester United suffering the indignity of dropping down into what was then Division 2 at the end of the 1973-74 season, and Bob Stokoe’s side unable to build on their FA Cup success, the scene was set for a renewal of hostilities in 1974-75. When the fixtures were announced the trip to Old Trafford was set for November 30th. This was one game that I didn’t want to miss, at any cost, and although my dad had largely stopped doing away games, mainly as a result of working all over the country as a plumber during a period when jobs were once again tight in the north east this was also one he’d circled in his calendar.
 
One slight concern for any Sunderland fan wanting to join the thousands certain to travel was the then fearsome reputation of ‘the Red Army’ hordes of United fans who had started the season by invading small towns and home ends up and down the country as Tommy Docherty’s side rushed to the top of the table. Wisely as it turned out my dad and his mates decided on getting tickets in the Main Stand, although not even that prevented some unpleasant incidents, especially for the foolish young United fans who tried to collar ‘Big Bernie’ from Peterlee and suffered the consequences.
 
So it was that I sat watching as groups of Sunderland fans in the Scoreboard End found themselves having to take defensive action, called ‘legging it’ to avoid getting a kicking, Patrick Garraghan who even today is a decent runner and another of my mates Iain Lambert both showing an ability to get out of the way of some of United’s finest. It took some time for Sunderland fans to gather in large enough numbers to resist getting attacked.
 
Our seats were close to the then world famous ‘Stretford End’ and it was absolutely packed around 45 minutes before the teams came out. The colour as the United fans swirled their scarves above their heads and particularly the noise was astonishing with the chanting hurting my eardrums. 
 
Backed by such fervour it didn’t come as any surprise when United took an early lead through Stuart Pearson, but Sunderland buoyed by what I recall was an excellent performance the previous weekend and with the FA Cup performances still relatively fresh had one or two decent players in those days. These included Billy Hughes eventually capped for Scotland, and a man who should have joined him my favourite player of the time Bobby Kerr, a marvellous captain.
 
And it was Hughes who gleefully converted Kerr’s drilled cross at the Stretford End to bring pandemonium amongst I’d guess approximately 10,000 Sunderland fans in a crowd of plus 60,000. If that was good things got even better when Hughes snatched a second after a superb 1-2 with Pop Robson.
 
The roar of ‘Haway the Lads’ could not be drowned even by the Stretford and Scoreboard Ends. Half-time 2-1 and I was sure we were going to win. The reason we didn’t is pretty straight forward, a bloody awful linesman!
 
Sitting where we were I had a brilliant view of events on pitch and can still see the ball being played over the outrushing Sunderland back four arms aloft appealing for what was an obvious offside as Sammy McIlroy was yards behind them. The expected flag of the linesman never materialised and when Pearson crossed the ball Willie Morgan was on hand to score the equaliser and produce a deafening noise. Even now more than 30 years later I am still annoyed, daylight robbery made worse by the fact that the previous week Sunderland had had a similar goal disallowed for offside against Notts County. Of course who then scored the winning goal, McIlroy and I’ve hated him since.
 
A 3-2 defeat in a cracking game was no mean feat, and with Match of the Day camera’s in attendance, this was a time when they also showed games from outside the top flight, then it was still a pleasure to return on the bus and watch the highlights of a match that the BBC watching public later voted the game of the 1970’s.
 
The return match that season in January wasn’t a bad affair; plenty of Man Utd fans I recall made the trip and were housed in the Clock Stand Paddocks with Sunderland fans seated above. There were regular kamikaze attacks whereby Sunderland nutters dived round the metal fence separating the Fulwell End from the Paddocks to launch futile raids. On the pitch the United rearguard also proved similarly impossible to penetrate and it was no surprise that the match, which was again on Match of the Day, ended 0-0.

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Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2 of the mini-series, and be sure to check out Mark's own website for details on his range of Sunderland AFC related books, as well as general football interest ones, HERE.

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