In this week's Roker Relives, Chris Weatherspoon recounts an FA Cup classic which will long live in the memory of SAFC fans...
In Nick Hornby's wonderful narrative on what it is to be a football fan, the best-selling 'Fever Pitch', he tells of a time when he fell out of love with the game. Finding himself disillusioned in the mid-1970s, Hornby attributes his sudden lack of interest to two things. First, he believes it was a transitional stage in his life, where casting alluring glances at girls and drinking alcohol were much more attractive options than watching football. Second, he suggests it was because Arsenal were simply not very good any more, at least by their usual standards.
The first point is one which relates directly to the life of a teenager, and is hardly worth commenting more upon, except to say that perhaps the rest of life should mirror its careless wonder. The second point, however, raises an interesting issue, one directly related to Sunderland AFC. From winning the double in 1970/71, the Gunners began a gradual period of decline. The 1972/73 season was one of particular annoyance; Arsenal finished as runners-up in the First Division and were dumped out of the FA Cup in the semi-finals. Though ever so slightly self-aggrandising, one can't help but wonder if that semi-final defeat to a plucky Second Division side from the north-east, a game the men from North London may have expected to win quite comfortably, didn't have a hefty impact on Hornby's decision to abandon the stands of Highbury.
Sixteen years prior to the event that made it famous throughout the non-footballing world, Hillsbrough hosted a semi-final that looked, to all intents and purposes, to be a mismatch. Sunderland, having suffered the ignominy of relegation for the first time in 1958, languished below the upper tier for a few years before regaining top-flight status, but another subsequent demotion meant they found themselves in the Second Division. Meanwhile, Arsenal, never relegated and still keeping that record to this day, remained a powerhouse of English football.
But this was a Sunderland team made of stern stuff. Having found themselves near the foot of the table earlier in the season, the arrival of Bob Stokoe at the helm invigorated the Wearsiders, and they travelled to the Steel City of Sheffield full of confidence - backed in no small part by legions of red and whites.
Clad all in white against the yellow of Arsenal, Sunderland took the game to their supposedly superior counterparts with striking vigour. Lining up with the same XI that would turn out against Leeds at Wembley twenty-eight days later, it was Micky Horswill, a man quickly becoming more famous for spouting pure nonsense on a local radio show, who had the Black Cats' first chance of note. With the ball falling towards him on the half-volley from a cleared corner, the Sunderland central midfielder chested the ball to his left before unleashed a vicious left-footed strike from twenty yards, producing a full-length diving save from legendary Arsenal stopper Bob Wilson.
Soon afterwards Wilson, in a tactic far removed from the intricacies regularly on show in Arsene Wenger's current side, launched an aimless ball high up the field. Horswill was again the man quickest to react, playing a similar lofted ball back towards the Arsenal goal. Defender Jeff Blockley's attempted back-pass to Wilson fell short, and in nipped Vic Halom to make it 1-0 to the underdogs. Halom had already made his mark on the competition in the fifth round victory over Manchester City with a truly sublime goal, but this scrappy effort was of no less importance.
From there, the game ebbed and flowed like any great cup tie should. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners did their utmost to pull level. First Horswill, seemingly everywhere on the field at times, cleared an effort off the line, before Arsenal winger George Armstrong struck a post. Sunderland stayed strong though, and Halom almost made it two but for an excellent Wilson save and another chance being kept out on the goal-line; Stokoe's men found themselves tucking into the half-time oranges with their one-goal advantage in tact, thanks in no small part to their last line of defence.
Sunderland goalkeeper Jimmy Montgomery will be forever remembered for the crucial, and astonishing, double save he pulled off in the final against Leeds. However, this semi-final saw the club's record appearance maker perform a similar feat of brilliance. The aforementioned Armstrong found himself in space at the corner of the Sunderland penalty area, unleashing a shot that took a truly wicked deflection off an onrushing defender. Montgomery, already almost fully committed to his right-hand side, reacted to the deflection instantaneously and flung his body in the opposite direction with unparalleled reflexes, sticking out a hand and miraculously turning the ball around the post for a corner. Proof, if any were needed, that the Cherry and Lorimer saves that were to come were by no means the products of luck.
After the break, the favourites again went in search of an equaliser, but it was Sunderland who would score the next goal, doubling their lead and putting themselves within touching distance of the final. Bobby Kerr, the captain, launched a throw-in of Rory Delap-esque proportions high into the Arsenal box, when it was met by the head of Dennis Tueart. Standing just five feet eight inches tall, he managed to flick the ball backwards in the direction of forward Billy Hughes. Hughes, seeing Wilson off his line, attempting his own backward header, and despite the Arsenal man's best efforts, the men from the Second Division were two up.
As time ticked away, the 23,000 or so Sunderland fans who made the trip to Sheffield began to realise the magnitude of the situation, and were soon in full voice. Never ones to make it easy for themselves though, the Black Cats set up a nervy finish, allowing the rebellious forward Charlie George to score a consolation six minutes from the end. The Gunners threatened more, but the Wearside back line held firm, and secured their first FA Cup Final appearance since their victory in 1937 against Preston North End.
What followed for Stokoe and his men has gone down in FA Cup folklore. Facing up against the might of Don Revie's Leeds, Ian Porterfield's goal and Montgomery's double save were enough to secure the Black Cats' second and most celebrated victory in the competition, prompting Stokoe's famous dash across the Wembley turf towards his goalkeeper at the final whistle.
For Arsenal, this defeat was the catalyst for their season to fall apart. Winning just one of their final five league games, ending with a catastrophic 1-6 defeat away at a vengeful Leeds side, the Gunners were unable to stop Liverpool from winning the First Division.
Perhaps the suggestion that Sunderland drove Hornby away from football isn't so fantastical after all.