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When The Town Stood Still: 1973 Remembered

John Crocker recounts his memories of the greatest day in Sunderland's history, which of course was the fifth of May, 1973.

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I still remember it quite clearly even though it was long ago, such was the impression it made. Of course momentum had been building for some time, and when we beat City, the feeling in town was one I didn’t associate with Sunderland in the early seventies – belief – and a buzz around the place like your stylophone had just been plugged into a power station. No surprise then that we came through against Arsenal and were due to line up against Leeds.

Everyone goes on about strong Leeds were in those days - because it was true. They regularly topped the First Division, featured in the cups, and, in a day when MOTD was probably the only regular televised football showing highlights of two matches a week, Leeds were on every week. Sunderland, on the other hand were more likely to be the name that Len Martin dropped his intonation for when reading the results on Grandstand just before tea on a Saturday.

That’s probably one of the reasons why the Cup was so huge. TV football was a rare delicacy and the FA Cup a special exception where the whole country could watch the whole game. And this year they were going to watch us.

You’d think they were giving free money away such was the clamour for tickets – and rightly so, this was the biggest day in town since the end of the war. If they’d found a venue big enough, I think the whole Borough would have gone – except my Mum, she didn’t like crowds.

So, unless you were a season ticket holder, celebrity, club employee or player, an available ticket was right up there with the Yeti – people claimed to have seen one, but there was never any evidence of one actually existing. It was a case of ‘who you knew’ and I knew my teacher, the scout leader and my Uncle Johnny, who spent his time picking coal off the beach. So when all my classmates boarded the buses for Wembley, I had my own plans. I was going to Joplings.

I was three months into my first job – Saturday boy in the food hall, fifteen years old and already couldn’t believe how bloody unfair life could be. Nevertheless, even first thing in the morning, the town centre was quieter than usual, those that hadn’t gone had changed their routine because today was different, today was unbelievable, Sunderland – Sunderland – the whole country was going to watch our team today.  Our team – just think about it. I went to school with Richie Pitt, watched him play for Seaham Boys, and couldn’t believe it when he signed for Sunderland. And today he was playing in front of the world. It made you shiver.

There was no point keeping the shop open when the game started, so at 2.55 everyone went up to the top floor where a TV had been provided and we watched the game in the staff canteen. And do you know what? It was brilliant. Maybe not the Wembley experience I grant you, but there was passion, and noise and excitement off the scale. I was kissed by Millie off the tills which seemed to be compulsory given the territory she was covering, and without doubt it was the most fun I’ll ever have with a large group of sober, fully dressed strangers.

And you thought that it was going to build from there, but, you emerged from the fervour and clamour that was Joplings staff canteen back out into a strangely deserted town centre. There was the odd inebriate hugging a lamppost, and whether or not he was aware of what had just happened was hard to tell but it wasn’t an anti-climax at all. In those days people watched football at home not in pubs – why would anyone come into town when the game was on – that would have been insane. The town centre was literally, the eye of the hurricane.

And so, straight into the Upper Deck. When you had the looks and build of a baby-faced pre-pubescent Tyrion Lannister there were two places you could be guaranteed a drink on my side of town – The Upper Deck and The Rosedene, and the pint of Trophy that night was the sweetest pint I may have ever had.

But the overwhelming desire was to get home, to celebrate with friends and family in your local, whether town picked up again later I don’t know, I’m guessing it must have. However, I was in the Alex watching the girlfriend’s mother dance on tables - no need to hike up to The Rosedene , the only criteria for getting served that night was a pulse. And it was an extraordinary evening, an extraordinary night, one that made you realise that everything you’d experienced up till that point hadn’t even registered on the scale of how fantastic life could be.

Of course there have been highs ever since, but the experience of that day for those of us that weren’t there was just as vivid, just as memorable and just as unforgettable as for those that were.

But of course they didn’t have Joplings.