clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roker Relives Special: Sunderland Settle The 1968 Title Race

It's changed a bit now, but this was the scene of a famous Sunderland win in 1968.
It's changed a bit now, but this was the scene of a famous Sunderland win in 1968.

And so, as we venture into the final day of the season, it is the two Manchester sides who remain. With all other contenders having fallen by the wayside over the course of the past ten months, now just two entertain hopes of being crowned English league champions.

This all, of course, applies to the coming weekend - but it could just have easily been used to describe 44 years ago today...

The parallels between 1968 and 2012 are striking. Just like then, this year sees the blue half of Manchester in the ascendancy. Beat QPR this weekend and Roberto Mancini's men will claim the club's first league since Joe Mercer achieved the feat by beating Newcastle United 4-3 at St James' Park.

Meanwhile, their red neighbours United again lie in wait, needing City to drop points if they are to stand any chance of claiming their second consecutive league title.

And, just like then, the Red Devils are faced with a game against a Sunderland side with little to play for. Comfortably clear of relegation, unlikely to trouble the higher positions in the table, Martin O'Neill's current situation is eerily similar to the one that Alan Brown's found themselves in in the summer of '68.

One difference is the venue. Back then, the odds were stacked heavily in United's favour for the game, as the Black Cats had to travel to Old Trafford. This time around it is Wearside that will host the potential champions.

This year's current crop has now ensured next season will see the sixth straight year of top division football at Sunderland, and the squad that travelled to Manchester back then had seen similar success - Brown's side had successfully secured survival for the fourth year running.

Much of that was down to the settled nature of their defence. Postioning 1973 cup final hero Jimmy Montgomery between the sticks and 'Player of the Century' Charlie Hurley at centre-half, the side had a solid base. With Colin Todd alongside Hurley and Martin Harvey and Len Ashurst at full-back, any chance of United having an easy victory was extinguished via a quick glance at the team sheet.

Sunderland opted that day for what was, at the time, a fairly adventurous 4-3-3 formation. The noted defence of four sat beneath an equally settled midfield three of Ian Porterfield, George Herd and Gordon Harris. Ahead of them young striker Colin Suggett (a son of Chester-le-Street, like all great men are...) led the line, flanked by George Mulhall and Bruce Stuckey.

The hosts, led by Alan Gowling, possessed an embarrassment of riches. Alex Stepney in goal, Paddy Crerand snapping at heels in midfield alongside Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton and George Best creating majesty ahead of them - it is not hard to see why the side would go on to win the club's first European Cup just a few weeks later.

Perhaps their thoughts were already on that game when the Black Cats came to visit. In a tussle that was expected to end in routine victory for the home side - who would then quickly turn to their transistor radios in hope of a Newcastle victory - the visiting red and whites ensured that was not the case.

Harrying them from the off, Sunderland played in a manner that belied a side who had nothing to play for. It was to their credit - and just reward - when they took the lead.

Stuckey battled his way through two challenges in mdifield, laying the ball off to Herd, who in turn found Harris. From there, at the second time of asking, Harris sent a delicious ball out to right wing - curling through the air and landing perfectly at the feet of Stuckey, who had managed to find space. The right winger then whipped in a low, pacey cross, which was met by Suggett's darting run to the front post. With the ball past Stepney before he knew it and the net bulging, pockets of Sunderland fans all around the ground broke into rapture - the United fans were stunned.

It got worse for them soon after. Herd again was important in moving the attack forward, finding Porterfield in the opposing half. The man who would eventually go on to write his name into Sunderland record books for all of time then sent another ball down the right wing, where Suggett was about to turn provider.

The opening scorer took one glance up and, again afforded too much time, sent the ball high into the United box. Mulhall, finding space between the two centre-halves, arched backward before powering a perfect header into the far corner. 2-0 to underdogs.

George Best would pull one back just before half-time - a rasping half-volley from outside the area - but in truth the league challengers rarely threatened Sunderland. Resolute at the back, with the young and old combination of Todd and Hurley in supreme form, United fans didn't even have to bother checking their neighbour's result. Sunderland had spoiled the party.

As it were, and as may prove to be the case this weekend, United's result was irrelevant. Mercer's City held their nerve and United's defeat merely compounded their greater anguish over having failed to retain their crown. Such anguish was allayed, of course, by the 4-1 victory over Benfica at Wembley a mere 18 days later.

For Sunderland it was enough to ensure a 15th-placed finish, and marked the last time they took three points away from Old Trafford.

Like Alan Brown, Martin O'Neill will be hoping his side can finish the season with a bang. Performances of late have been lethargic and sub-par but, just as in 1968, the chance to ruin a Mancunian party could well spark the Black Cats into life.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report